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    Mother's case casts light on 'baby blues'

    As the search for a missing woman continues, an expert says postpartum depression can cause mothers to flee their families, and make them suicidal.

    By RYAN DAVIS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


    NEW PORT RICHEY -- More than anything else, Janet Gifford wanted a baby girl.

    Her husband has his 2-year-old son, a fisherman and baseball player in the making, and she wanted a little girl to dress up in frilly outfits and teach to do her hair.

    On March 26, she got her wish: baby Rebekah.

    But when she and Rebekah left the hospital, Gifford also brought home the unexpected: a seldom discussed illness that haunts as many as one in five women who give birth.

    Gifford, 41, was suffering from postpartum depression. That is why she disappeared Friday -something she never would have done if she wasn't hurting emotionally, her husband said.

    Pasco and Pinellas county authorities were still looking for the Safety Harbor woman late Sunday. Earlier in the day, they had used horses, dogs, bikes, golf carts and helicopters to search Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, where she was last seen.

    "I had heard of postpartum depression before, but I'd never realized it could be a serious condition," said Steven Meyers, her husband. "People call it the baby blues, which makes it sound like this cutesy little thing women go through. It's not."

    The ailment, a hormonal reaction to having a baby, is the most common complication related to childbirth, said Andrea Dresser, the secretary of Postpartum Support International.

    It leads mothers to believe they can't cope, aren't good parents and can't bond with their baby, Dresser said. In the most severe cases, it can cause mothers to flee their families and make them suicidal.

    Gifford, a former assistant city attorney in St. Petersburg, was on maternity leave from the Pinellas County Economic Development Department when she vanished.

    She had spent Sunday through Thursday at Morton Plant Mease Health Care in Clearwater being treated for depression, her husband said. On Friday, she was scheduled to have her first group meeting back at the hospital. She never showed, and when she didn't come home, he called the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

    Her Nissan Pathfinder was found Friday evening parked in a lot at Starkey, a heavily wooded park just north of the Pasco-Pinellas line.

    On Sunday, authorities distributed fliers to people entering the park for Easter picnics. They also searched a 19,000-acre area, but found nothing.

    Meyers, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida, and his brother, Don, joined the searches.

    They also have been making a video to show Meyers' children when they get older.

    The brothers were sitting on picnic tables Sunday not far from where Gifford's car was found when Steven Meyers spoke of a feeling he couldn't shake.

    "I keep feeling that if I walk 20 feet over there I'm going to find her," he said. "Or over there. Or over there." Meyers said he does not think his wife had been to Starkey before. His brother described her as a spa-and-resort kind of person, not someone comfortable in a wilderness area.

    Dresser of Postpartum International said it is not unusual for new mothers suffering from depression to try to flee.

    The best known example, she said, was Marie Osmond's disappearance in July 1999 after she gave birth.

    Doctors gave Gifford medication during her hospital stay last week, but some women need time -- and perhaps different drugs -- before they respond, Dresser said.

    Gifford would be at higher risk for depression because she had a Caesarian section, Dresser said. (Rebekah was in the breech position.) Some experts think an inability to deliver naturally contributes to feelings of inadequacy.

    Despite its frequency, postpartum depression is rarely discussed. People often expect the woman to just "snap out of it," Dresser said.

    Meyers thought his wife was getting better after she left depression treatment Thursday. She wasn't herself, but she did make a few jokes after coming home and seemed more talkative, he said.

    Then she disappeared.

    "The only thing you can do," he said, "is sit around, speculate and hope."

    Meyers returns home each night to the house where his wife stenciled flowers and put little fairy decals on the wall of Rebekah's room."My wife was so especially happy when she found it was a girl," he said. "She was talking about doing her hair."

    Anyone with information about Gifford is asked to call Pasco Detective Jim Medley at (727) 844-7711 or 1-800-854-2862.

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