MINNEAPOLIS — Radiologist of the year. Teaching resident of the year.
Dr. Gretchen Butler was all of those things at the age of 36 — and, a new mom for the third time.
“Our third child was 18 months old when Gretchen took her own life,” Mike Butler, Gretchen’s widow said.
Roughly, one doctor dies by suicide every day, which is twice the rate of the general population, while female doctors alone are three times as likely to die by suicide than the general population.
“She just worked non-stop and she was able, I think, in large part due to her training in medicine, to put her own needs so far below everyone else’s — mine, my children, her patients — and she forgot how to take care of herself,” Butler said.
A rising star in medicine and committed to equity in health care, 38-year-old Dr. Radhika Snyder had an 8-year-old daughter and a 10-week-old son when she died by suicide on July 4, 2021.
“We were talking about how much breast milk to pump and where to keep that and then she was just gone," Seth Snyder, Radhika's widow said. "I woke up on a Sunday morning and she wasn’t next to me in bed. I went to feed the little guy a bottle because we talked about trying to help him wean off breastfeeding, so I fed him a bottle and found her body.”
Radhika’s death by suicide came as she was battling post-partum depression. She was weeks away from returning to her work as a doctor in the Twin Cities, and just 10 weeks into parenting her second baby.
But beyond post-partum, there was a certain reality that confronted both Radhika and Gretchen.
“There are too many moms in health care under too much stress," Snyder said. "Every one of us who is a partner of a mom physician knows it intimately. We have seen our wives, partners, stress out. We have seen them shut down and worry and carry too much,” Snyder said.
“It’s important for everyone, but especially for doctor moms, to know this could happen," Butler echoed. "Gretchen didn’t plan for this to happen; it just did. It happened so sudden that we need to be aware of it and we need to do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else."
Butler’s wife Gretchen died in March of 2021, four months before Radhika.
When Mike learned of Radhika’s death, he called Seth, who before that call, was a stranger.
“Mike and I chatted and he helped me through some of the horrible early days where everything was falling apart as he was just months ahead on the same horrific journey,” Seth said.
The journey wasn’t just about the two of them losing their wives, it also would begin a journey for the three children Gretchen left behind, and the two Radhika left as well.
Mike talks to his kids about Gretchen all the time. He told them their mother died by suicide.
“It’s as hard as you would think to say that, but it is important for them and me that they know they can trust me. They only have one parent left,” Mike said.
The same is true for Radhika’s kids.
“I had to tell this 8-year-old girl whose mom was her hero, her mom was everything to her, that her mom was gone. I had to tell her mom died," Seth said. "And being powerless to watch the impact words like that have on your own kid...'devastating' is the only word that comes to mind, but it doesn’t even come close. It’s a soul-deep rupture that you never expect to have to do and say and be as a parent, is to have to break your kids’ heart.”
In the 19 months that have passed since Gretchen’s death, and the 15 since Radhika’s, the reality of a world without them still lives in every breath and moment of their husbands' and children’s lives.
But glimmers of hope do come in grief.
Radhika’s daughter is now able to open a book that friends made about Radhika.
“A few weeks ago, my parents saw her open the book and telling the neighbor kids stories about her mom,” Seth said.
A couple of months ago, both families decided to form the Dr. Mom Foundation.
The foundation's mission is to support the mental and physical health of physician mothers and other health care providers with families, as well as career satisfaction and overall wellness.
If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, there is help available from the following resources:
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