The Life and Death of Ruth Rhoden Craven and the Birth of Postpartum Support Charleston
Editor's Note: This is a four-part series, airing every Friday, that retells the origin of our organization. Some of the content may be disturbing, as it is a story of maternal mental illness and suicide. If you find that you need to talk to someone about it, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Anna Mullinax sat across from another mom who was suffering. On the edge of her seat, Mary Anna listened intently as the other woman poured out her heart about her struggles with motherhood. Although she was listening and giving encouraging words, Mary Anna was working through her own grief. She was determined and driven by the desire to never lose another mom under her watch. Mary Anna sat in circles like that one, on that particular day, because she had lost one of her closest friends to postpartum depression. She and her collaborators were desperate to never let another mother suffer in silence.
“One of the things that really struck me was, postpartum depression was like something that took a piece of metal and twisted it into nothing,” Helena Bradford said. “And that’s what we couldn’t understand. What was this disease that just obliterated her?”
This is the story of Postpartum Support Charleston. More than that, though, it’s the story of the life and death of Ruth Rhoden Craven and all the other mothers who have found themselves in darkness, through no fault of their own, after the birth of their children. This organization, created initially as the Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation, was born out of sorrow, but it lives on in love for the child that Ruth left behind, for mothers that are struggling and for the ones who have recovered.
Ruth would’ve turned 52 today. She was born on March 9, 1966, in Richland County, S.C., to Helena and the Rev. J. Marlon Rhoden Jr. Her mother and Ruth’s friends remember her as level-headed, friendly, talkative and organized. She grew up on Sullivan’s Island and later in Mount Pleasant, attending Wando High School and graduating from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She loved music and was an avid concert-goer, Mary Anna said. Ruth attended concerts for Duran Duran, Tom Petty, the Eagles, Elton John and -- her favorite -- Billy Joel. Mary Anna, who was younger than Ruth and whose families had known each other for years, recalled that Ruth mentored her in high school and included her in her group of friends.
“She was the motherly one of the group,” Mary Anna said. “If anything needed to be taken care of, it was Ruth that did it. If you needed anything, she was the one. If you were interested in something, she was right there with you. If she ever dated someone, if they were interested in whatever, like fly fishing, she had the fly fishing hat. She had all the stuff. She was right in there with it.”
Ruth loved her job as an accountant at a family-owned business in Lexington, S.C., and she was wanting to move up the ladder. Helena said Ruth had taken the test twice to become a CPA but, frustratingly enough, hadn’t yet passed. Her co-workers were particularly fond of her, Mary Anna and Helena remembered.
“At lunch time, if she’d go out to get lunch, she’d say to the people in the office, ‘I’m going out to get some lunch. Do you want some?’” Helena recalled. “And she’d bring it back. Her coworker visited her a lot after she got sick. And at one point, she said, ‘You better hurry up and get back because you’ve got these people spoiled. They want me to go out and get their lunch for them. I said, No, that’s Ruth. That’s not me.’”
Ruth and Joey lived in a modest, one-story brick home on Vanderbilt Road, and Ruth was excited and nervous about becoming a mother. Elaine Earl, the third co-founder of the Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation, met Ruth after marrying into Ruth’s circle of friends. Elaine recalled that Ruth was concerned that she wasn’t gaining as much weight in pregnancy as expected. She also remembered Ruth’s formality in approaching all things, especially when it came to naming her child.
“What I remember vividly is Ruth taking me and my then-husband Shawn out to lunch so she could ask us if it was OK to name their baby Andrew, since we had just used that name for our child,” Elaine said. “We said, Sure, of course it is! We were elated and a little confused that she felt the need to be so formal with us, but that was just how Ruth was.”
As the due date approached in September 1999, Mary Anna said that Ruth made three lists for who was going to be contacted when Andrew was born. She was so organized, Ruth asked Mary Anna which list she wanted to be on -- and Mary Anna chose the 6 a.m. list for a birth announcement call. “That was how she structured everything,” Mary Anna said.
According to Ruth’s medical records, Ruth was scheduled to be induced on Sept. 20, 1999. But her baby had other plans. On that day, when she was 41 weeks along in her pregnancy, her water broke spontaneously, and Ruth and Joey went to a hospital in Columbia for the birth. When she arrived, her cervix had already dilated 4-5 centimeters, and then rapidly went to 5-6 cm, progressing smoothly and quickly. Her obstetrician’s records state that the doctor was eventually summoned to the room due to fetal distress. He found that Ruth was ready to push, so he performed a second-degree midline episiotomy and unraveled Andrew’s umbilical cord, which had been wrapped around his neck four times.
Shortly thereafter, Andrew was born. His airway was suctioned, and his umbilical cord was clamped. He was a healthy baby boy, and he was transported to the nursery while Ruth birthed the placenta, and her episiotomy was repaired.
The Cravens were now a family of three.
Read Part 2 here.