The Private Pain of a Public Woman Channel 13's Denise Koch recounts her frightening bout with panic disorder and postpartum depression.

The 6 o'clock newscast wasn't half over when the panic descended. Once again, Denise Koch didn't see it coming. Although she never perspired under the TV lights, sweat now trickled down her neck. She stared at the TelePrompTer, struggling to keep the words from becoming a fuzzy jumble. The studio was spinning.

Sad thoughts had brought this on, she told herself. Thoughts of delivering WJZ's news without her close friend and colleague Al Sanders, who was dying of lung cancer. And thoughts of being apart from her twin infant daughters, who had gotten out of the hospital barely a month before.


She silently repeated the phrase that usually reassured her at times like this: "I'm OK and the babies are fine. I'm OK and the babies are fine." But her heart pounded like a heavy drum. Inside, another voice threatened her tenuous composure.

"Before this newscast is over," she said to herself, "I am going to run out of this room, run out of this building and run away."


The moment the credits rolled, she raced to her news director's office and shut the door. Her brown eyes filled with tears, and, in a tremulous voice, Koch said something she had been struggling to get out for months - maybe even years:

"I'm in real trouble, and I need help right now."

Looking back on it now, Koch calls April 6, 1995, the worst and best day of her life. Hovering near emotional rock bottom, she finally was able to ask for help. Help that would eventually explain why the anchorwoman couldn't eat or sleep, became remorseful about having children, grew anxious at work and was witnessing her world - the one she had worked so hard and endured so much to create - come apart.

Dr. James McGee, chief psychologist at Sheppard Pratt Health System, and Dr. Evangelia Lignos, a psychiatrist there, provided the answers, diagnosing Koch with a panic disorder and postpartum depression.

Out of gratitude to them, Koch spoke publicly for the first time about her illness last week, sharing her story of turmoil and survival at Sheppard Pratt's annual meeting.

When she speaks about that time privately, the words tumble out. Sitting behind the desk in her office, she looks petite and, perhaps, fragile. At times, reliving those days becomes too painful and she pauses or looks away.

What she sees are photos of her daughters - Meg beautifically asleep and JoEsther by the seashore - that sit atop her bookcase. A picture of Al Sanders hangs on the wall behind her. From one vantage point, he looks like a guardian angel perched just over her shoulder.

Last year, she could have used one.


Some of the explanation for her illness can be found in the stressful years leading up to motherhood. She and her husband, Jackson Phippin, went through nearly 10 years of infertility. After two miscarriages, surgery and several in-vitro procedures, she finally became pregnant at 43.

From the start, it was a difficult pregnancy - and she spent much of it in bed. At 31 weeks, she began retaining fluid, and her blood pressure skyrocketed. She was admitted to the hospital, and tests revealed that she had pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Two days later, on Dec. 28, 1994, the non-identical twins were delivered by emergency Caesarean section. Margaret - named after her mother and nicknamed Meg - weighed 2 pounds, 12 ounces. She let out a healthy cry but was put on a ventilator for several days. JoEsther - named after her husband's mother - weighed 2 pounds, 8 ounces and breathed on her own.

Even after the delivery, Koch retained so much fluid that she was watched constantly for three days. "It's been a very sobering thing for me to realize that I came that close to death," she says. "I didn't really know that when I was in intensive care."

After nearly a week's stay, she was released from the hospital.

Her daughters remained there for 57 days.


At home without them, she cried constantly at first. That was normal for a new mother returning home without her babies, she assumed. For almost two months, she spent most of her waking hours at the hospital with her daughters.

"The first couple of weeks I would break down and cry just looking at them. I was reminded how small and frail they were. I also felt extremely guilty. I felt like I had failed these children. They were supposed to still be in my stomach, and my body didn't do its job. I just kept saying to my husband, through my tears, 'It's not their fault. Why are they suffering?' It wasn't my fault either, but I couldn't figure that out."

Bonding with the children was complicated by their early delivery. With the emphasis on growing, the girls needed minimal stimulation.

"You'd have to ask, 'Is it OK if I hold them? Is it OK if I diaper them?' ... Your instinct was to hold them and sing to them and be with them. And [doctors and nurses] would say, 'Don't hold them so much because they need to just lay there.'"

A Bittersweet homecoming

On Feb. 25, 1995, the girls finally came home. It was supposed to be a joyous day, but Koch got her first undeniable sign that something was awry.


"I remember sitting at the table," says Koch, 45, who lives in Howard County. "My mother had made this nice dinner and I couldn't eat. I could not get the food in my mouth. I was so panic-stricken. I was so sure the moment they came home I couldn't manage it. I went into a total panic attack, although at the time I didn't know that's what it was. ... I felt sick, like I'd " better run."

The doubts reverberated inside her head: "This is more than you can handle. You shouldn't have had these children. This is a mistake."

"Then once you think that, your brain goes: 'You're a horrible person to think this. What kind of human being are you? You almost killed yourself to have these children. It's the only thing you wanted in life.' Then you think, 'Well, I must be out of my mind.'"

The panic attacks began building. She would have as many as five a day - and they could last for hours. Initially, she believed she could keep them in check by being better organized. Nurses reassured her that what she was feeling was normal. And when " she confessed to her gynecologist that she feared she was going crazy, he dismissed her concerns.

"He said, 'You should just watch out because you're a candidate for fatigue because you have twins and you're a working mother.' That was as much comfort as I got," she says.

Often when the attacks hit, she needed to leave the house. She'd run around the block or she'd drive to the grocery store, tearing up and down the aisles. "I said to myself, 'Look, that person is happy. They have four children and they're happy. Look, she has two children and she seems calm. What's wrong with you?' I was trying to figure out where normalcy was. If I could see it and identify it, then maybe I could figure out how to get there."


She became a different kind of wife during this time - never arguing, disagreeing or even expressing a strong opinion for fear of upsetting her already delicate equilibrium.

At first, her husband chalked up her erratic behavior to stress, exhaustion and trepidation about the future. He tried to talk her through her anxiety and encouraged her to join a twins support group.

He was going through his own adjustment period, marshaling his energies to juggle life as a husband, father of newborn twins and theater director.

"It was difficult to pick up on the clues that she was spiraling downward. I misread it as just Denise under duress," says Phippin, 52.

While Koch recalls him being tremendously supportive, she felt her illness was pushing him to his own breaking point.

"I remember my husband saying, 'Listen, I signed on for everything, but I didn't sign on for psycho wife. You're not making any sense. I don't want to hear this anymore,'" Koch says.


Now he says: "I have to shoulder some of the blame. Had I not been as exhausted from the whole event, I might have been able to perceive a little better what she needed."

Fear of death

Days before she was to return to work, she went to visit Al Sanders, who had been hospitalized with what initially was thought to be pneumonia. When she got to the hospital, she wasn't allowed into his room. One of his children related the news: He had just been diagnosed with lung cancer.

"When I heard that Al was probably dying of cancer, I called my mother and said, 'Who's going to take care of my children when I die?' All I could think was, 'I'm going to die, I'm going to die.' I even called relatives that I'm not close to and said, 'If I die, will you be there for my children?' Not that I didn't feel bad that Al was dying, but to me it was synonymous. Al's dying, and I'm dying."

The next day she visited the station. Everyone was excited and relieved about her return. She was, as one colleague put it, "the mother of the newsroom."

The words hit hard: "I was thinking, 'Oh my God. Now they need me and I'm not going to be there for them.'"


Her colleagues were in such shock about Al Sanders that they didn't see she was suffering. "The whole newsroom was depressed, so she didn't stand out," says Gail Bending, the news director. And while Koch was struggling inside, she rarely let it show and never missed a newscast. "She's the quintessential professional," Bending says. "If you were going to war, you'd want her on your side."

Koch credits her acting background with allowing her to work through the attacks.

But things reached a crisis the night Koch walked into Bending's office and asked for help. "I'm usually very good at separating the 'performer' me and the 'me' me. But I couldn't maintain the distinction anymore," Koch says.

Bending called McGee, who is married to a WJZ news writer. All Koch could do was pace until he arrived.

"We went into one of the conference rooms, and I said, 'OK, I'm either losing my mind or I'm dying. I don't know which, but I can't make it."

For McGee, the first part of treatment was education. "I told her, 'Hey, you're not going crazy. You're not going to die. You're not losing your mind. You're not having a heart attack.' I spent most of the time explaining to her what was going on and why it was happening. She went on the 11 o'clock news and did fine, despite the fact that she had been through a very difficult experience."


After the newscast, she called her husband and told him what had happened.

"I got very frightened," he recalls. "I'd never heard her voice sound like that. It was like she had been in a train wreck. It was very adrenalized, and it didn't make sense. It was like she was talking to me from another reality."

By the weekend, she hit her lowest point. She was plagued by another episode at work on Friday, then stayed up all night with a sick daughter. By Saturday morning, the attacks were unrelenting. A baby sitter took the girls out of the house for the day. McGee, whom she'd called at 6 a.m., came over and spent hours talking to Koch and her husband about panic attacks, how they can be controlled and the traumas she had been through that could prompt her mind and body to react this way.

McGee believed there was an element of post-traumatic stress disorder in what she was experiencing. "When you put together all the ingredients - Al's death, the near-death experience she had, the fragility of the children and the stress of returning to work to a situation where one of her dearest friends was dying - you're talking about stress levels well beyond the normal human experience," he says.

A common condition

Although Koch felt completely alone, her condition, she later learned, is fairly common. More than half of new mothers will experience some postpartum mood instability - due in part to stress and changes in hormones and lifestyle - and 15 percent develop depression. Similarly, 15 percent of the population will suffer a panic attack at some point in life, Dr. McGee says.


These intense states of fear occur for no apparent reason. When people have their first attack, their fears often range from, "I'm having a heart attack" to "I'm losing my mind," he says. After it subsides, they are left wondering: What just happened? Then they start thinking about it all the time. In effect, they scare themselves, bringing on sensations like rapid heart rate and sweating that were the precursors of an attack in the first place.

Says McGee: "Denise thought she was a dead duck. But I've seen this a million times. I kind of did a sales job. I said, 'Time out. You have a fairly garden-variety panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder with depression. They're all mixed with one another. It feels depressing as hell. ... The good news is you're going to get through this. And it's not going to take all that long.'"

She was put on a low-dose anti-depressant, given books to read, breathing exercises to do and a relaxation tape to play.

"It was such a relief to have someone look at me and say there's a name for what you're feeling," says Koch. "It has nothing to do with you being a bad person. ... I began to understand what was happening to me was only feeling. I wasn't really in danger at all. These were just feelings, and feelings are not dangerous. I was able to begin to cope."

While Koch improved, she still had setbacks. One night at work, she faced such a severe attack that McGee came to the station and sat with her again. Five minutes before the newscast, the two were still talking.

She realizes now that she never understood what panic attacks or phobias were, though she'd read about them and done TV segments on them.


"I remember thinking, 'Oh, come on,' to these people, these whiners. I wasn't really being that mean about it. But on one talk show after another there were people saying they couldn't go into crowds. ... I had no understanding of what a panic attack felt like."

About a month after she began treatment, she and her husband got into a heated argument. Neither can remember now what prompted it. But at some point, Phippin paused, looked at her and said: Welcome back.

"She had that fire in her eyes again," he says. "It felt like that wonderfully strong person I had fallen in love with had returned."

Her illness tested their relationship, but also strengthened it, she says. "It was like you get to the bottom of a hole and then you look and there's someone sitting next to you. And you go, 'Hey, thanks. You came here with me.'"

By the time Sanders died in early May, Koch was feeling more in control. She mourned his death - delivering a stirring on-air tribute the night he died and a eulogy at his funeral - without suffering an attack. Shortly after that, she would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about mortality, and to this day she's incredulous that her colleague of 13 years is gone. But that sadness and shock haven't brought on the episodes she faced in the past.

Her last panic attack occurred roughly a year ago, when her nanny was leaving. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God. I'll never sleep again.'" But she placed a quick call to McGee and used what she'd learned to talk herself back from the edge.


He says the goal was not to make her anxiety-free in life, but to help her learn to deal with these situations. She's still likely to get rattled - and there is a chance that the panic attacks will recur --but it's unlikely that she will be blindsided again.

Speaking out

While indebted to him for his help, she hesitated at first when he asked her to speak at Sheppard Pratt. Few people, including colleagues, knew what she had been through. In an image-driven business, such a revelation could affect her popularity. But she wasn't ashamed of her illness or the treatment she received. And writing it down - as well as talking about it - might help her better understand it.

So last Thursday, Koch stood in front of 200 business people and shared the poignant story of the worst days of her life and how she fought back from them.

Moments into her 20 minute talk - as she quoted from an entry in her baby journal - she filled with tears.

This day was one of my worst, she read. Fought off tears the whole time. Regret, anxiety, panic and fear. Fear of what? Death?. My babies are three months old and their mother is a maniac.


"Why did I write that? I'm here to talk about how a woman like me could find herself in that kind of hell. How it could happen to anyone and why, if it happens to you, you must get help."

Her quivering voice filled the auditorium. It didn't sound like the polished anchorwoman, but like a woman who had lived through great pain. Mascara stained her cheeks. And she swallowed hard.

People were nodding. At the right times, they even laughed. And throughout the room, she could see the people who had helped her most - her doctors, her husband and her mother, Margaret.

"I share this very private chapter of my life tonight because I believe it's important to know even the strongest, even the most controlled, most willful person is vulnerable....I think the old adage, 'God never gives you more than you can handle' is bunk. Many people are handed much more than they can handle. I was."

At the end, the audience clapped and rose to its feet. Her husband allowed himself to smile for what seemed like the first time since he sat down. And her mother, misty-eyed, looked proud.

Afterward, a crowd gathered around her. There were no inner voices saying, "Your're a bad person" or "You're going to die."


Instead, she heard people say, "thank you," and congratulations." They called her strong and courageous, told her she had done a brave thing by talking about her life.

L And Denise Koch, it seemed, allowed herself to believe them.

Pub Date: 10/20/96