Parkinson’s Disease, Open-Heart Surgery May Have Contributed to Robin Williams’ Suicide

Katie Eder, Senior Editor
Published Online: Thursday, August 14, 2014
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A previous heart operation and recent struggles with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease may have contributed to Robin Williams' suicide.

Robin Williams’ previous open-heart operation and recent struggles with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease may have contributed to his suicide, according to recent reports.
 
“Open-heart surgery has historically been known to affect a person’s cognitive functioning following recovery,” Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, chief of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia, told the New York Daily News. “The valve replacement involves stopping the heart while you're replacing it, and having that kind of procedure with general anesthesia, there is an increased frequency of depression occurring in the aftermath.”
 
Although the timeframe for when Williams first began battling depression remains unknown, the Oscar-winning actor was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic in 2009 for aortic valve replacement and mitral valve correction, and depression is one recognized side effect of major cardiac surgery.
 
In addition to Williams’ possible post-operative depression, his widow, Susan Schneider, revealed in a statement on Thursday that the star comedian had been diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease prior to his suicide.
 
“Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety, as well as early stages of Parkinson’s disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,” Schneider said in the statement.
 
Dr. Lieberman noted those risk factors combined with open-heart surgery may have increased Williams’ risk for suicide, which the actor successfully attempted in his home in Tiburon, California, on August 11, 2014.
 
“The problem is…everyone gets upset, but we don’t do anything in the aftermath,” Lieberman told the Daily News. “Suicide is a rare event, but the population in (whom) it occurs is very identifiable by these risk factors.”
 
All health care professionals—from physicians to pharmacists—are urged to remain on high alert for the signs and symptoms of post-surgery depression, especially among patients in the white and middle-aged demographic that has the highest rate of suicide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a 63-year-old white male who had been seeking treatment for major depressive disorder and diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, Williams was a prime example of a patient with elevated suicide risk.
 
In her statement, Schneider said, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”
 
“Robin spent so much of his life helping others. Whether he was entertaining millions on stage, film or television, our troops on the frontlines, or comforting a sick child, Robin wanted us to laugh and to feel less afraid,” Schneider continued. “His greatest legacy, besides his 3 children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles.”


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