Extraordinary medical career
But a gap in her personal life
On September 11, 2001, Dr. Liane Leedom watched on a television at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as New York City’s World Trade Center collapsed into a burning heap of twisted metal. Leedom was a staff-consulting psychiatrist in the emergency room. The hospital was located within 30 minutes of the New York state border—she estimated that her emergency room would soon overflow with patients from the tragedy.
They never came. People either walked away from ground zero, or did not survive.
Like many Americans, the event shook Leedom to the core. More than 2,600 people went to work in those towers that morning and never come home. The attacks cruelly reminded her that life was fragile—and short.
Leedom was approaching her 40th birthday. She was a single mother of two girls, ages eight and 11, working full-time as a doctor and trying to maintain her home on a one-acre wooded lot overlooking a lake. She was tired of doing it all alone, tired of being without a partner. She wanted a complete family—even more children.
Met on the Internet
A friend encouraged Leedom to try Internet dating. So she wrote a profile to describe herself—a petite, youthful, dark-haired psychiatrist who loved children. Her ideal match, Leedom said, would be a widower or divorced man who was raising children by himself.
One of the men who replied was Barry Lichtenthal of Colt’s Neck, New Jersey. Lichtenthal wrote a long, verbose e-mail, in which he told Leedom how much he had loved his wife, who tragically died, and the beautiful family they had together. His youngest child was 12 and needed a mother, Lichtenthal wrote, and he hoped to find a relationship as good as his prior one.
Leedom agreed to meet Lichtenthal. When they did, he was charming, intelligent and articulate. Lichtenthal presented himself as a person of means—retired after running a number of businesses—and spent quite a bit of money on her.
“I can’t truthfully represent that I was swept off my feet,” Leedom says—after all, the guy was portly, with thinning gray hair and glasses. “But I figured that my days of passionate love were over. I wanted someone who would help me. I felt overwhelmed with the tasks of life—working, keeping the house up. I wanted a partner.”
Lichtenthal seemed to be a stable man and a good father. He related well to Leedom’s daughters, and his son was well-mannered.
“We had nice times together,” Leedom says. “He was funny, he made a good friend, he talked a lot and he listened a lot. It seemed like a workable, functional, entertaining relationship. He was a very psychologically minded person and could talk about values. He reflected the same things as being important in his life that were in mine.”
Then Leedom found out that Lichtenthal had lied to her about his age—he was 15 years older than her, not 10. She began to have doubts about him. Sensing that he was about to lose the successful female psychiatrist, Lichtenthal appealed to her love of children and wrote her an e-mail about how his son really needed a mother and a best friend. With that, Leedom was hooked.
Two short months after meeting Lichtenthal, in December 2001, she married him.
Reputable psychiatrist and researcher
Licthenthal and his son moved into Leedom’s home overlooking the lake. Leedom says he was a contributing member of the family—he helped with paying the bills, chauffeuring the kids and maintaining the household. Leedom felt like she had a partner and was finally on par with her male colleagues in the medical profession.
Leedom had a superb reputation as a psychiatrist. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychobiology, and her medical degree, at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Leedom did her residency at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California. Then she left her family in California and moved across the country to Connecticut to pursue a doctorate in psychoneuroendocrinology at Yale University.
While she studied, Leedom also conducted research and co-authored nine scientific papers on how the endocrine system influences behavior. The papers included:
- Hyperglycemia and fight-flight behavior in nondiabetic and diabetic mice
- Symptoms of sexual dysfunction and depression in diabetic women
- Symptoms of depression in patients with type II diabetes mellitus
When she married Lichtenthal, Leedom had her own private practice, plus she was on the medical staffs of Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health Services in Westport, Connecticut and St. Vincent ‘s hospital.
At St. Vincent ‘s, Leedom specialized in electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. Although ECT is controversial, it has been clinically shown to be the most effective treatment for severe depression, and Leedom was an expert in using it.
But Leedom refused to give ECT to people if it was not appropriate. “People would get mad at me for not treating them with ECT, but in certain patients I didn’t feel it was right or would be beneficial,” Leedom says. “Some people were referred to me under the guise of having treatment-resistant depression, when they were really substance abusers.”
Treating difficult patients
Leedom says she treated every patient who came to her door, and never turned a patient down because he or she lacked insurance. In fact, when people were very sick but had limited ability to pay, Leedom’s colleagues sent them to her. “Part of it was compassion,” Leedom says. “Part of it was that I needed the intellectual challenge of treating difficult patients.”
Rhonda Marshall, a visiting nurse with New England Home Care, worked with Leedom since 1996. Together, they treated some of the most difficult psychiatric patients in the area, people who suffered from schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and major depression. Leedom examined them and prescribed medication; Marshall went to the patients’ homes every day to give them their medicine and check on them.
“Dr. Leedom was wonderful. I loved working for her,” Marshall says. “She had a sincere compassion for the patients. They knew that and loved her. They truly respected her.”
Marshall says Leedom often went to see these psychiatric patients in their homes. “That’s very rare nowadays—no one goes to patients’ homes to see them,” she says. “Many doctors won’t give up their Saturdays to see patients. Dr. Leedom did all of that.”
Making her dream come true
Leedom was happy in her new marriage. After years of struggling alone, she had support and company. Life was good.
The newlyweds made time for each other. Every weekday evening, and every weekend morning, they sat in their hot tub, which was situated on the back deck of their house. Because the house clung on a steep, wooded hillside, it seemed like they were relaxing in steamy, bubbling water amid the treetops.
In the hot tub one morning, Lichtenthal asked Leedom about her dreams. “I’m retired now, and I’ve done pretty much everything I’ve wanted to do with my life,” he said, according to Leedom. “I’d like to help you do what you want to do. If you could do anything, what would it be?”
Leedom knew exactly what she wanted to do. First, she wanted to figure out a way to treat substance abuse on an outpatient basis. There aren’t enough hospital beds, and insurance companies won’t pay to keep patients in hospitals for 30 to 60 days.
Then, she’d use any money made from the outpatient program to establish a halfway house for mothers and children—the women who wanted to overcome their addictions and parent their children, but were homeless.
“I’m going to make your dream come true for you,” Lichtenthal said.
Leedom was skeptical. “Yeah, right,” she thought to herself.