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Father says illness caused mother to harm baby

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

HARVARD – Isaac Mejia is a healthy 18-month-old, walking, vocalizing, and a little bit shy.

Anyone who didn’t know otherwise would have no idea that his mother is at the McHenry County Jail, charged with attempted murder for allegedly putting a knife down his throat when he was 9 months old.

It’s difficult to understand how a mother could hurt her own child. Claudia Mejia’s husband and Isaac’s father, Osvaldo Mejia, doesn’t completely understand it, either.

But he knows that his wife is very sick and said he’s going to be by her side until she’s OK.

Women especially have been judgmental, Osvaldo Mejia said Friday with his sister-in-law translating at his home in Harvard.

“They really don’t understand that if she was in her right state of mind, she would have never done that,” he said. “She was never an aggressive mom. She was always loving and caring with her children.”

Until recently, 37-year-old Claudia Mejia had been receiving treatment at the Elgin Mental Health Center, where physicians said she was profoundly mentally ill – mute, immobile and in a catatonic state.

With psychotropic medication, she began to improve but continued to be depressed. She was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and, while treatment options were being considered, suffered one of at least two seizures.

A CT scan of her head also indicated a scar believed to be from cysticercosis, or a parasitic infection caused by unknowingly ingesting microscopic eggs excreted by a person who has an intestinal pork tapeworm. For many people, it can go undetected.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in general, most people in the United States with the infection are immigrants from regions where the disease is common, including Latin America.

Mejia has been in the United States for 17 years, but is not a legal immigrant, her husband said. She last returned to Mexico about 10 years ago, her family said.

Each year, about 2,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with neurocysticercosis, meaning the infection is in the brain, with Illinois among the states with the most cases reported.

It can cause seizures, said neurologist Beatrice C. Engstrand, who did not treat Mejia.

Based on the lesion’s description in Mejia’s psychological report, however, it likely was dormant. People who have the infection often do not know, Engstrand said.

“It’s in a pivotal area, but it might not be significant enough to affect her behavior,” she said. “It probably was not the cause of her doing that.”

Osvaldo Mejia said he was home at the time of the incident, but was downstairs shaving. He didn’t know what had happened to the baby, but saw the blood and thought maybe it was from a fall. It was only when speaking with detectives later that he learned about the allegations.

About two days before, he had noticed his wife was being quiet, but he attributed it to being tired, possibly from problems at work at a nursing home, where she was a housekeeper.

She was a bit of a perfectionist and often would talk about work at home, not leaving it behind when she was off the clock, he said.

According to her evaluation, Mejia is receiving medication to treat her extremely low level of estrogen, which often is found in women suffering from postpartum depression.

Following that, as well as psychiatric medication, she has greatly improved and been psychiatrically stable for weeks, in contact with reality and interacting well with others.

On Sept. 21, she was found competent to stand trial, although a trial date has not been scheduled. Her attorney, Wes Pribla, has said that if the case does go to trial, he believes she would be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Mejia’s husband wants her home with her children, although he doesn’t think that will be happening anytime soon.

It’s been hard for him to be both mom and dad at the same time.

He teared up when talking about the effect the incident has had on his family. They have gone to visit Claudia while she was in Elgin, including Isaac, who would warm up to her after seeing her interacting with his siblings, giving her a hug and a kiss and calling her mama.

Isaac is likely too young to remember what happened, and Osvaldo Mejia said his wife told him she didn’t remember, either.

But it could happen to anybody, he said.

“People need to understand that this is an illness, and it can destroy a family,” he said.

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