A transformation to treasure

A transformation to treasure
Would you agree to electroconvulsive therapy?

September 05, 2006
By Amber Smith
Health & Fitness editor
The Post Standard

It was an average summer weekday, after a routine doctor’s appointment, at an ordinary restaurant on Erie Boulevard. Debbie Ahearn was dining with her 82-year-old mother.

It was a meal, a moment, she will never forget.

Her mother ordered from the menu, then began talking about the weather.

Debbie Ahearn burst into tears.

“When you get a person back to life, you treasure the little things,” she says, recounting that afternoon through tears even weeks later.

Ahearn’s mother, Frances Ahearn, of Baldwinsville, had Parkinson’s disease for six years when, about a year ago, she started becoming anxious and obsessive. Over several months, she spiraled into depression, with hallucinations and paranoia. She was in and out of emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals. She stopped walking, stopped eating, stopped speaking and stopped recognizing Ahearn. She was near death, doctors agreed, when Ahearn went against her mother’s stated wishes and asked them to try shock therapy.

Today you wouldn’t know it.

“Now she is walking with her walker. She’s laughing. She’s making jokes. She’s eating. She’s gotten back to life,” Ahearn says from her mother’s room at Park Terrace at Radisson, an assisted living center.

The electroconvulsive therapy Frances Ahearn underwent is, technically, the same treatment depicted in “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.” Only, patients today must consent to the therapy, and it isn’t used to control behavior. Patients are sedated with anesthesia and muscle relaxants, and they’re provided oxygen during the treatment.

Dr. Roger Levine, who oversees psychiatry for St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, says the ensuing seizures are usually mild, with patients only slightly moving hands and feet. “You sort of change the balance of all those neurotransmitters,” he says of what happens in the brain. “It’s actually the most effective treatment there is.”

Shock therapy is used to treat severe depression and other mental illnesses. It was developed in the 1930s but stopped being used so much after antidepressants hit the market. Levine says it helps many people, not by curing their depression but by getting them out of bad episodes.

Frances Ahearn doesn’t remember much of her ordeal.

“I remember the one treatment I got. I remember the doctor putting those (electrodes) on me, but that’s it,” she says.

Ahearn, also of Baldwinsville, remembers doctors proposing shock therapy in April. Her mother was at St. Joseph’s, hallucinating. Sometimes Ahearn would go along with her mother’s hallucinations, and sometimes she would spend hours trying to help her differentiate what was real from the tricks of her mind.

At one point, “she fell limp in my arms,” Ahearn recalls. “She told me she was going to die. It was one of the most scariest moments in my life.”

She stopped eating and curled up in bed. “She was basically, without realizing it, committing suicide. Her refusal of food and medicine was jeopardizing her life.

“She still had that paranoia where she thought people were trying to poison her. She thought cameras were around and people were trying to kill us. She had horrible hallucinations about what would happen to her.

The doctors told Ahearn: “If this continues, you have to realize that her organs will start shutting down.”

She researched shock therapy, then signed consent for her mother to have the treatment. The first of five was done June 13.

Ahearn didn’t notice big changes in her mother after the first couple of treatments. Frances Ahearn recognized her daughter again, and she was able to sit in a chair, but that was all. The big improvements were visible after the subsequent treatments.

“I saw her in her deepest, darkest, basically dying days,” Ahearn says. “The transition is absolutely amazing. It’s a second chance at life, that’s what it is.”

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