Martha: Remaking myself

I decided I needed become my own best advocate.

My name is Dr. Martha Heppard and not only am I an internationally known and respected physician and surgeon in the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and now a nationally respected fine art artist, but I also have a bipolar II condition.

Let me get right to the heart of my story. In March of 2002, I was actively seeing patients in my private practice and conducting clinical research for industry when, over a few days, feelings of mild depression swept over me. I couldn’t shake this mood for months. So, I sought help from another doctor. He diagnosed me as having a very mild bipolar II condition. Bipolar II is where one has hypomania and depression. I have never had mania, which is part of what’s known as bipolar I.

My psychiatrist started me on medication, but they were anti-mania medications, the opposite of what I needed, and so over months they drove me into a deeper depression.

After the third edition of my medical text, which I authored, was released and I had just returned from presenting to the FDA for one of the companies for which I conducted clinical research, I called my doctor because my mood was now in a moderate depression, despite many good things going on in my life.

My doctor started me on another medication. This time, it was appropriate for my condition but it gave me a mild hand tremor. The tremor was very mild and in no way impacted my patient care.

Two weeks after I started the new medication, my medical assistant, Kelley, came into my private office.

“I’ve just called the Medical Board and told them you’re taking unprescribed narcotics!” she stated with fire in her eyes.

I couldn’t comprehend what she’d just told me. She then handed me a piece of paper with the Board’s phone number on it, and walked out of my office, with a click, click
click of her high heels tapping on my hardwood floor.

Kelley and I had been friends for four years before she asked me, six weeks previously, if I would hire her as my medical assistant. Didn’t she even consider that this new tremor was a sign of a medical condition, or a side effect of something I had been prescribed? Why didn’t she talk with me privately about her concerns, before making the phone call to the Board? She actually assumed my hand tremor represented a sign of drug withdrawal, when it was only a side effect of my new bipolar mood-stabilizer!

I called the Board immediately and made an appointment to meet with them the next day. Then, despite great anguish, I called my doctor and notified him of what had just happened. It was so difficult to talk about, and even admit, that someone had just accused me of a horrible crime!

My doctor directed me to have multiple blood samples taken immediately to demonstrate what was and was not, in my system. So, I left the office and had eight tubes of my blood drawn. They were tested for over 50 different substances. I was distraught the rest of the day and evening, unable to fathom that someone, a friend albeit, would ever accuse me of such an act. I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, I met with two psychiatrist representatives from an organization which evaluates doctors for the Medical Board, who, after talking with me, informed me that although they understood my side of the story (I overhead one of them after they left my interview room say that he doubted my story), they needed to conduct up to a six-week investigation of my office. I needed to be out of my office during the investigation. I agreed to this, knowing they’d be in and out quickly because nothing was improper. I hired another doctor to care for my patients in my absence.

The next work day, my blood tests were completed, and they were negative for 48 substances. They came up positive only for the two medicines I was prescribed.

Two weeks came and went. I began to slide into a deeper depression because I was shocked the investigation was still ongoing. My doctor placed me on additional medication, which didn’t work and was improper (again) for my condition. It sent me into a process of ultra-rapid cycling. He changed the exact medication every three days, although the replacements were all the same type of medications, as I sank deeper and deeper into a severe depression.

I slipped into suicidal thoughts and actions. I went through multiple and prolonged hospitalizations at public and private institutions, which were regarded as some of the best psychiatric hospitals in America.

At these institutions, I was stripped of my dignity and my medical training and knowledge was ignored by my physician colleagues. It reached the point where I was placed in dangerous situations.

Sadly, side effects of my medications caused disinhibition, which led me to legal troubles during my attempt to recover my neurologic chemical balance.

Three months after the false accusation was made against me, I was cleared fully of any wrong doing, but now I was a month into a two-and-a-half-month private hospital psychiatric hospitalization.

I had to close my medical practice because I could no longer work as a doctor while taking multiple psychoactive medications. Being unable to work and sustain my office forced my husband and I into an awful financial situation.

After being on up to eight psychoactive medications at one time for a few years and taking doses of some of these medications over three times the FDA’s recommended maximum dose (I suffered from many horrible side effects, including not being able to talk and having severe spatial disorientation), I decided I needed become my own best advocate.

I immersed myself in the medical bipolar literature and realized that I needed to change doctors and obtain consults from national experts in psychopharmacology who worked at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

My new psychiatrist worked with me to help me wean down and off many medications over a few years. Just when she and an expert were recommending electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) for my medication resistant bipolar II disorder, I had my final suicide attempt.

A doctor at the new hospital I went to recommended a very old-fashioned medication to me, which I started. Within three days I began feeling better than I had felt in a decade! I was able to avoid ECT and found a chemical balance for my bipolar II condition.

I have been an internationally respected clinician, surgeon, and medical writer. Now I’m also an award-winning artist and author of the first art book published worldwide on a very new art technique, in which I specialize and am a world leader and educator.

Art galleries in Honolulu and Holualoa (near Kona), Hawai’i, represent me (and the two galleries I was in here in Denver recently closed). I teach this unique technique at a renowned art institute in Denver. Five of my paintings were hung in our Colorado State Capitol just two months ago, on a two-year loan. I have remade myself over the past decade and am happy to be alive and enjoying life again.

–Martha Heppard