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A Minnesota physician’s suicide inspires a foundation focused on ‘Dr. Mom’

The physician’s widower connected with another family who went through a similar experience. Together, they hope to raise awareness around the mental health of physician mothers.

Radhika Lal Snyder and Seth Snyder with their two young children.
Radhika Lal Snyder and Seth Snyder with their two young children.
Nicole Klein, Charlie and Violet photography

No matter where she lived, Radhika Lal Snyder built a family. Though her blood relatives lived far away in India, she always managed to make a home wherever she landed, cocooning herself in a tight-knit group of friends and colleagues. 

When she was accepted to the University of Minnesota Medical School, Radhika and her husband Seth Snyder left California and moved back to Minnesota, where they had met while attending the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Though her life was filled with med school, residency and eventually joining a family medicine practice in Plymouth, Radhika’s homemade family continued to grow.

“Radhika really deeply valued connection and friendship and relationships,” Seth Snyder said. “She was always creating and maintaining these networks. Her sisters like to refer to her ‘tribe across the world,’ which is composed of many villages.” 

People connected to Radhika were devastated to learn she died by suicide in the summer of 2021, just 10 weeks after the birth of her second child and six months into her medical career. Her family and friends continue to struggle but want to make sure no one else experiences the same loss. Partnering with another Minnesota family, they’ve created the Dr. Mom Foundation dedicated to helping mothers who are physicians facing mental health challenges.

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Med school mom

Radhika gave birth to her first child just weeks after the white coat ceremony marking the start of medical school. While becoming a first-time mother during such a daunting time felt like a challenge, she embraced it with enthusiasm, her husband said. 

Radhika Lal Snyder
Photo by Seth Snyder
Radhika Lal Snyder
Medical students at the university can take up to six years to complete the required four years of studies, so in the fall of 2012, Radhika took a year off to spend time with her newborn daughter. 

Though this baby was planned and excitedly anticipated, becoming a new mother was a particular challenge, Seth said: “That was the winter that lasted until the first week of May. The combination of having just moved from a warmer place back to Minnesota, having a baby and being nervous about how to take care of a kid was hard.” 

When her daughter was a few months old, Radhika descended into a serious bout of postpartum depression

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available by dialing 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“The dark, the cold, being away from her family as a new mom, planning to be in med school and then taking time off all converged,” Seth said. “There were some really low points.”

Alexis Render, a close college friend, remembered Radhika’s downward spiral. 

“I hadn’t heard from her in a while,” she said. “Normally we talked to each other all the time. I kept calling and calling and she never got back to me. When I finally talked to her she sounded flat. I said, ‘Can you hand the phone over to Seth?’” When Seth came on the line, Render said, she “pulled the best-friend card. I told him, ‘I’ll be over in 20 minutes. I’m bringing dinner.’” 

Though Radhika was at first reluctant to seek help, with her loved ones’ urging she eventually agreed to see a therapist and take an antidepressant. “You could see an immediate difference. When the chemical started balancing things out she just snapped back into the friendly Radhika we were used to,” Render said.  

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A job and a new baby

When her maternity leave was over, Radhika dove headfirst into medical school, and later into residency at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) and Whittier Clinic in Minneapolis. During that stressful time, she added to her collection of friends and chosen family, including fellow resident Dr. Kiran Sidhu. 

Radhika’s sense of commitment and composure were impressive to the then-single and childless Sidhu. “It was enviable,” she said. “She was always so organized. I was like, ‘How the hell does she have the time to be a mom and do residency stuff and take care of a home?’ Reflecting back, it is remarkable that she or anyone is able to parent through residency.”  

Radhika and her youngest child
Nicole Klein, Charlie and Violet
Radhika and her youngest child
Despite the challenge, Radhika seemed to have things under control, enough so that she and Seth began talking about having another baby. 

“She was in her last year of residency and had her job offer in hand already,” Seth said. “We had a contract for her first post-residency full-time job.”  

In the spring of 2020, the world began to fall apart. “The end of residency was crazy,” Seth explained. “The last spring and summer was the beginning of COVID. She was doing rotations through HCMC’s Level 1 trauma center. The end of her residency was enormously stressful. No one knew what was going on, what was dangerous, what was safe.”

In the summer of 2020, as she was finishing residency, Radhika became pregnant with the couple’s second child. She’d planned to travel to India to spend time with her family before the baby was born and she started her new job, but the pandemic put that on hold. A caretaker by nature, Radhika didn’t always share how hard things were for her, Seth said. “I will never know how worried she was.” 

Render knew that her friend’s residency — though she believed Radhika was, “the perfect person” for the job — was an ongoing source of stress. “That clinic has a high-needs population,” Render said. Sometimes, after a particularly hard day, Radhika would stop by her house after work. “She’d tell me about all the sad and lonely and sick people that she’d talked to that day. She was decompressing before she went home.” 

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Brain attack

After Radhika’s son was born in the spring of 2021, friends and family worried her depression might return. From the outside at least, things seemed to be going well.

At Render’s wedding in June of that year, her friend was acting like herself, though a little stressed with the new baby. “It didn’t seem like last time,” Render said, though she noted that Radhika did seem worn out and worried about struggles with breastfeeding. 

A few weeks later, Radhika suddenly started acting differently. It came on so quickly it was frightening. “The first time it was like what you expect from depression: Low mood, low energy, frustration,” Seth said. “This presented itself as confusion. That’s the best way to describe it.” 

Later, Seth came  to learn that what happened to Radhika was likely psychosis— not a standard form of depression: “It was an actual mental break, a biochemical disease.” The condition is rare, happening only in about 1 to 2 out of 1,000 deliveries

Radhika’s disease took hold of her so quickly that no one — not even her husband — had time to respond. She died by suicide early on the morning of July 4, 2021. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available by dialing 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“Looking back on it now I could see that there were signs, but they didn’t seem different than the usual sleep deprivation and exhaustion of new parenthood,” Seth said. “It was only the last two weeks of her life that there were a couple of things that seemed off. It was really only the last three or four days that it was obvious things were weird. And then she was gone.”

The news of Radhika’s death knocked Render flat. “I got a text from Seth’s mom,” she said. “Good thing my husband was there. I just bawled and curled up in a ball next to him.”  

Seth was home on parental leave when Radhika died. “I only survived because my neighbors and my parents and her friends swooped in and took care of it all,” he said. 

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Render’s children loved Radhika, and she needed to put what happened to her best friend in words that they could understand. In the end, she said, describing Radhika’s death for them also helped her. 

“The way I explain it to my kids was she had a brain attack,” Render said. “It’s like a heart attack: If she had been seen immediately maybe someone would’ve been able to help her. But it was the middle of the night and she was alone, so she died.”

Heads down, hearts wounded

No one will ever know if the combined stresses of new motherhood and a challenging medical career pushed Radhika over the edge into psychosis. People who know her well believe that as a high-achieving, caring, connected person, she was perfectly suited for her job. And those who saw her in action as a working mother believed she had both roles under control. 

“She had absolute conviction that if she did what she loved she would be a better mom,” Radhika’s sister Tanya Lal said. 

Sidhu, who went through what she recalls as the “terrible time” of residency alongside Radhika, blames what she sees as the dehumanizing approach her program takes with its residents.  

“I think it is interesting that in family medicine we are meant to holistically care for the well-being of our patients but that is lacking in the care and well-being of trainees,” she said.

Sidhu herself developed depression while in residency. Afraid to be seen by her overtaxed colleagues as “the weak link,” she pushed herself through, until she couldn’t take it anymore and had to ask for a short leave. “(My supervisor) said, ‘You’re not the only one who’s struggling.’ She wasn’t supportive,” Sidhu recalled. 

Dr. Ryan Greiner, an advocate for physician mental health and medical director of a large Twin Cities-based group of practicing physicians, said the experience of medical school and residency can be damaging. 

“There is moral injury, high stress, low pay,” said Greiner, a former board member of the physicians’ group Twin Cities Medical Society. “During this time many people are starting families and typically living in two-career households. It is an extremely challenging environment.” 

Studies show, Greiner added, that “mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and perhaps PTSD solidify their foundation during that period.” And it doesn’t end when a physician finishes med school and residency, he said. “Then they transition into clinical practice, which is another major stress event.”

Unfortunately, Sidhu’s experience of having her leave request minimized by her supervisor isn’t all that unusual, Greiner added. “In residency, mental health is stigmatized within the physician community. It becomes a, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ environment. People struggle privately. Sometimes they cope with substance use.”

Greiner believes that the medical community needs to make major changes to the way physicians are supported through their training and into their early careers. He also wants to see an openness around discussing the high mental health costs of practicing medicine. He’d like to end the sense of shame that many physicians feel around disclosing their mental health struggles.  

“There needs to be greater support from medical credentialing bodies to invest in physician well-being at the state and national level,” Greiner said. “State medical boards need to be contributing a portion of licensing fees to programs that support intervention-based treatment.” 

A foundation to help others

Not long after Radhika’s death, when Seth said he was still “in hiding” at his parents’ house in Minneapolis, he got a call from another grieving father. 

The caller was a man named Mike Butler. His wife, Gretchen Wenner Butler, the mother of his three young children and a newly-minted physician herself, had died by suicide earlier the same year.  He’d heard about Seth’s situation from a mutual friend. 

“He was generous enough to call. He said, ‘I’m here in the Twin Cities going through the same thing,’” Seth said. 

Gretchen was the youngest of four children, each of whom had grown up to become physicians. As Seth got to know her family and learned more about Gretchen’s story, an idea slowly began to form in his mind: He wanted to create a nonprofit that would honor physician mothers like Radhika and Gretchen — and work to create systems that support others like them through their mental health struggles. 

Seth scheduled meetings with Mike Butler and Gretchen’s siblings. Together they created the Dr. Mom Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness around the mental health of physician mothers, build connections and advocate for systemwide change.  Seth, who extended his work leave after Radhika’s death, has taken the lead in establishing the organization. 

Rachel Wenner, Gretchen’s older sister and a mother of four, said that her involvement with the Dr. Mom Foundation has inspired her to devote herself to supporting the mental health needs of her fellow physicians. 

“My hope is that I can help provide my experiences and things that I have found helpful and also act as an advocate at the political level to try to make changes for physicians,” she said. “I also want to be there as a support for physician mothers who are struggling. I want to lend an ear or share stories of things that I have found helpful for myself.” 

Wenner said her sister seemed to have her life under control — but her work as a radiologist was taxing: “Gretchen had worked 36 out of 48 hours in the days before her death.” 

While the Dr. Mom Foundation is just getting started, Wenner said she has great hopes that it will be able to help other physician parents like her sister find a light in the darkness of their despair.

“I always try to think,” Wenner said, “What would Gretchen want? What can we do to honor her? What can we do to help other people?”

Radhika’s sister, Tahireh Lal, said that she and her family all hope the Dr. Mom Foundation’s influence will expand beyond the United States. “I sincerely hope that it becomes an important resource for doctors and caregivers all over the world,” she said. “Care for our caregivers is extremely important.” 

While the Dr. Mom Foundation has started small with a focus on Minnesota, Seth Snyder said it is his goal to expand the organization. 

“The eventual hope is to start influencing the way we do medical education and training that allows physicians to be healthy people,” he said, adding that he’d also like to use his organization’s influence to help shift policies and practices in health care toward giving physicians, nurses and others time off when they need it. 

Physicians go through a recertification process every couple of years, and in many states the wording provided by licensing boards restricts them from having sought mental health treatment. Last year, thanks in part to advocacy from medical-student groups, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice changed wording involving mental health treatment in its medical license forms.  Snyder would like his foundation to someday help groups in other states do the same thing.

“We want to help shift the conversation about health care to providers getting holistic health care themselves as models for their patients,” Snyder said. “Physicians should not feel they have to pretend they are superheroes who don’t have problems.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available by dialing 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.