The Washington Post

From naked on highway to thankful postpartum survivor

Heather Coleman and her two children, Lily, then four months old, and Darius, then two years old. This was taken less than two weeks before Coleman's postpartum breakdown. (Courtesy Heather Coleman)

And she needs your help.

Coleman has gone public with her story to warn both new mothers and their families of the serious dangers of postpartum syndrome. We’ve seen a bizarre postpartum outburst before in Fairfax County. In November 2001, a Fairfax schoolteacher fatally stabbed her husband while he sat watching a college football game, not long after the birth of their child. Friends described their marriage as idyllic and the violence as utterly uncharacteristic.

Postpartum depression affects between 12 and 20 percent of new moms in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though some mothers’ support groups think the number is higher. The symptoms can range from mild to severe, and can be an indicator of mental illness.

So Coleman has shared her story with a group called Postpartum Progress, and created a Facebook page in hopes of contacting the people who intervened in a weird situation. But she has hit roadblocks in speaking with a District police officer and two people from Richmond.

Here’s a short video interview with Coleman. After the jump, details of her bizarre day, and how you can help locate Coleman’s Good Samaritans:

Do you recognize this 2006 Chrysler Pacifica? Heather Coleman abandoned it on the side of I-295, heading north into DC, on Oct. 3, 2008, and wants to find the people who came to her rescue. (Courtesy Heather Coleman)

In the days before Oct. 3, 2008, Coleman had been having trouble sleeping, and occasionally had some obsessive thoughts about losing her new baby, but thought little of it. That morning, though, she awoke at 5 a.m. and began distributing flyers in her neighborhood urging residents to register to vote. Which was unusual.

That day, she went to the funeral of a friend’s mother, then to work, where she said she was extremely talkative. She began recognizing a lot of “coincidences.” Her thoughts were racing.

At day’s end, she got in her 2006 Chrysler Pacifica and joined slow-moving Beltway traffic heading south toward Virginia. She recalls phoning her husband, asking him about Adam and Eve, and whether women were evil. She called her parents in Vermont, asking them strange questions, and they realized something was wrong.

Traffic on the Inner Loop trudged along. Coleman said she became convinced the world was coming to an end. She pulled into the breakdown lane and drove a little faster. As she came to the exit for I-295, she took it and headed toward D.C., and the bridge over the Potomac River.

“I was trying to get baptized before the world ended,” which Coleman believed would be coming in some sort of nuclear meltdown at 5:55 p.m.

She stopped her car at the bridge. “I remember getting out,” Coleman said. “I remember taking my shirt up over my head. I remember running, on the right shoulder. I was going to the edge of the bridge, and then walk down and get in the water.”

Do you recognize this man? It's Keith Coleman, husband of Heather Coleman, who showed up at the scene on I-295 after his wife ran naked down the side of the highway. Heather Coleman hopes someone might recognize her husband from that day and come forward, so she can thank them. (Heather Coleman)

She was hospitalized and was unhurt. She was later diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, and with medication she has everything under control. Still, she wanted people to be aware of the sudden potential that postpartum psychosis can evolve into.

And she wanted to thank the people who saved her, who she believed to be two African-American couples. I tried to help.

Coleman filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the D.C. police, and received both the 911 tapes from that day and the dispatchers’ logs. The logs revealed that it was actually an off-duty police officer named Boone, “Forestville PD,” who was one of the first on the scene. There is no Forestville Police Department.

The 911 tapes revealed that a man named “James” called in from the scene, said he was from Richmond, and that he and his sister were standing with the naked woman. He gave his phone number.

I have called that number days, nights, weekdays and weekends. Without ringing, it goes straight to a recording which says, “The person you have called is unavailable. Please try again later.” And no voice mail.

So James, with a phone number of 240- 216-XXXX, if you’re out there, please call me. My direct line is 703-383-5116.

With the help of the Prince George’s County Police Department, I found Officer Kenneth Boone. He is a member of the Metropolitan Police Department. Unsurprisingly, he remembered the incident. He was very polite, but said he needed permission from his department before he could speak on the record with me, which also is not surprising. He has spoken briefly to Coleman, but they have not fully connected either.

And over the last month, D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump has simply declined to help. Of the six e-mails I have sent her, explaining that Officer Boone did a good thing and Coleman wants to thank him, Crump only responded to the third one. She said on July 15 she would follow up next week. Since then, no response to several more inquiries.

So, D.C. police, if you’re out there, please call me. My direct line is 703-383-5116. Let’s wrap up this postpartum episode with a happy ending.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.


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