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Baby Blues : Postpartum Depression Triggered Mother's Descent Into Suicide

November 11, 1990|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Late on a Friday afternoon in September, Victoria Karter walked into the Four Seasons Hotel, declined the offer of a fourth-floor room and took one instead on the 19th floor.

A tall, dark-haired woman with an angular face, Karter, 33, carried a garment bag as well as a purse. She stayed in the room only about one hour, but it was long enough to leave cigarettes snuffed out in ashtrays and to put a ring of lipstick around the neck of the Jack Daniels liquor bottle she brought with her. Long enough, too, to make a final telephone call.

The call was intended for Kathy Boone, a woman who had been Karter's friend for more than 20 years. But because Boone wasn't there, Karter talked to Virginia Rivera, Boone's mother and a woman who considered Karter a member of her own family.

Karter told Rivera what she had been telling Boone since soon after the birth of her first child 4 1/2 months earlier: She wanted to commit suicide.

"She told me that she wanted to talk to Kathy and she needed to tell her a few things before she would kill herself," Rivera said. "I said, 'Vicky, give me your number and I'll have Kathy call you. She should be here any moment.' "

But Karter refused to say where she was.

"She said, 'Mrs. Rivera, I'm so sick, I feel so sick.' At that moment it seemed like she dropped the phone. I kept calling her. I could hear noises. I thought maybe someone was there with her. I stayed on the phone the longest time. Then all of a sudden I didn't hear anything."

Karter walked out on the balcony of room 1902 and jumped to her death.

Gregory Owen Lee sits in the living room of his comfortable Newport Beach home, bouncing his daughter, Rachel, on his knee and then putting a bottle in her mouth. Periodically, he stops talking to fight back tears.

A dark-haired, bespectacled businessman who chooses his words carefully, Lee says that both he and Karter had wanted children. "My personal point of view is . . . that's what life is all about, to have a family and raise kids."

Lee, 35, thinks of himself as an "old-fashioned kind of guy" who wanted to marry just once, "settle down and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, happily ever after in my case was three years."

In six months he has gone from being the husband of a pregnant wife to being a widower left to raise an infant daughter on his own. He tries to juggle his work schedule to spend as much time as possible with his child. He hopes he doesn't hear an old favorite song on the radio to make him burst into tears.

"I know that despite the adversity that I'm facing right now, my primary focus has to be toward my baby," Lee says.

"I'm sitting here right now and you see me and I'm pretty composed and I can talk to you about the incident. Two weeks ago if you had seen me I would be crying and . . . distraught about not knowing what's going to happen."

Baby books and toys dot the house. There is other literature, too, explaining a condition Lee said he never heard of before Rachel's birth: postpartum depression.

It's believed that postpartum depression caused Karter's suicide, an illness Lee said he heard about for the first time when his wife was hospitalized at UCI Medical Center. That was almost three months after Rachel's birth in late April, a typically happy, blessed event for most women, but one that plunged Karter into despair.

Doctors say that while most mothers get the "baby blues" after giving birth, the condition lasts only a little while. Postpartum depression, by contrast, strikes about 10% of new mothers and does not "cure itself."

The illness has been known for centuries, but only in the past 10 to 15 years has it been studied in depth. Medical opinion is divided on whether the depression stems from a chemical imbalance after childbirth or if it is caused largely by existing emotional problems, troubles that Karter never seemed to have before giving birth.

Psychiatrists say only a tiny minority of those who develop a full-fledged postpartum depression kill themselves or their children. One doctor calls the number "small" but "significant."

Kathy Boone and Vicky Karter met when they were 11 years old, in 1968, in junior high school. Boone said her friend was happy and outgoing, an artist talented at drawing, a poet, a journalism student and "very creative."

Boone's mother, Virginia Rivera, called Karter "an average, normal girl." She was at the Rivera house in Montebello so often as a child that Rivera "felt like she was our stepdaughter or adopted daughter." The death of her mother a year or so after Karter graduated from high school struck her hard, Rivera said.

"It bothered her a lot that she didn't have her mother there for her. I told her whenever she needed someone, just call me, and she always did."

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