Some say the therapy is inhumane. Others say it has saved their lives

By John David Sutter
The Oklahoman

Oct. 2, 2006

Michele Rodriguez-Ryland thinks about suicide every day – sometimes constantly.

And if not for the 175 times she’s had medically administered electric shocks sent through her brain, she says her unyielding depression would have killed her by now.

“It’s like going outside in the sunlight, you know, colors look brighter, people seem friendlier,” she said of the electroconvulsive therapy, also called ECT or shock therapy, she’s chosen to receive. “I just feel like I wanna go out and do everything. And this is after just a few hours before, feeling like I wanted to kill myself. I mean, that’s quite a radical transition.”

The controversial treatment – mostly used to dull intractable cases of severe and prolonged depression when drugs and therapy fail – appears to be making a comeback from its stigmatized past.

In Oklahoma City, Dr. Shreekumar Vinekar, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, said he now administers the treatment to about twice the number of patients he did 10 years ago – up from about 250 treatments per year to an estimated 500 now.

National and Oklahoma statistics on the treatment are not collected. But Dr. Charles H. Kellner, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the New Jersey Medical School-UMDNJ, a leader in the field, said ECT use is “definitely increasing. It’s going up several percent a year, definitely. I don’t think there’s much question about that.”

Some say the treatment has become destigmatized. Others say patients are simply more aware that it’s an option.

The increase comes in spite of risks, including memory loss.

But for those with depression like Rodriguez-Ryland’s that doesn’t respond to anti-depression medications, or doesn’t respond quickly enough to avoid crisis, psychiatrists have long backed keeping ECT available.

They say modifications have made the treatment a safe and effective option – worth the risks.

How it works
Exactly how ECT works is not understood, but its power is thought to be in the seizures it induces.

Patients are wired to two electrodes placed on their forehead. While under general anesthesia, a series of shocks, lasting usually no more than 6 seconds each, are pumped into the brain. This induces seizures, which are thought to reboot or reset brain chemistry.

Patients are given muscle relaxers before ECT treatments, otherwise they would convulse and maybe get injured.

The procedure takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Rodriguez-Ryland said the first time she underwent ECT she felt terrified, miserable, hopeless. Since then, she has come to know her doctor and anesthesiologists and looks forward to ECT.

She only can receive up to three treatments per week. She goes back for one any time she feels like she can’t go on living otherwise.

Memory loss
Rodriguez-Ryland and others experience memory loss, which they link, at least in part, to their shock treatments.

Rodriguez-Ryland parks in the same, empty section of the Wal-Mart parking lot every time she goes, so she’ll remember where her car is. She uses visual markers to put places she might otherwise forget in a memorable context.

She says doctors have told her severe depression causes her memory loss, not the shocks. But she thinks it may be both. Her memory returns, and it’s a risk she’s willing to take for the benefits.

She said she has tried to kill herself about 30 times. The first attempt was at age 10. She says ECT saved her life.

Tina Boyle says a series of ECT treatments ruined hers.

After shock therapy, she lost almost all recollection of her family. She used stacks of photo albums to refresh her memory but says she will never be the same. “I feel like I’m short-circuiting,” she said.

She and her family members say the memory loss started after her shock therapy. Her children quit their jobs to take care of her for a time. She stays in her south Oklahoma City apartment most all the time, for fear she’ll forget how to get home.

Boyle’s memory loss may not be related to her shock therapy. She has other mental health conditions.

Her psychiatrist declined to comment on her case, despite Boyle’s willingness to sign legal release forms necessary for him to do so. Medical records from 2002 provided by Boyle show she received ECT treatment.

Rodriguez-Ryland hopes more people become aware of shock therapy so that they can discuss the option with their psychiatrists.

She is still very depressed.

But she has enrolled in graduate school at OU, with the hopes of writing a book about her experiences with ECT.

Comments (12)

forresaOctober 12th, 2006 at 9:15 am

My name is Forresa.I had ect in Jan.and Feb. of 2006.I was desperate. I had tried suicide every way possible. My brother commited suicide in 2002 and I found him. My father died right after and I was divorced. I was so suicidal that I flat lined a few times. Evidently, God was not ready for me. Since ect, I have not felt suicidal and it has given me my life back. I am not depressed. My aunt died last month and I spoke at her funeral. I turned a sad event into laughter. I hope I can help someone who is contemplating ect. I honest to GOD think I would be dead if not for ect. I had no memory problems. I understand ECT and how it works. It is just electricity.Your brain is an electronic device. To hell with all the meds that didnt work for the last 20 years. ECT WORKS! I AM HAPPY!

RhondaNovember 1st, 2006 at 2:52 am

I too have had ECTs and if it was not for a very understanding doctor whom spent lots of time with me to explain the procedure I probably would not have done it and I would be dead from killing myself. I currently have maintenance ECTs, one every 4 weeks and if I get down before the 4 weeks are up my doctor talks to me in detail about possibly moving up my maintenance ECT to help me out. There are some very good caring doctors out there, and my doctor is one of those doctors. My doctor and his colleague are the only two that administer the treatment and again they are both very thorough on explaining the procedure and possible side effects. I am one of the very few that do not have major memory problems. For those contemplating ECT, always ask questions and if your doc can’t answer a question you have about ECTs and the possible side effects then it is time to find a doc that can answer your questions. ECT works for me and I am doing much having the procdure done.

MariaNovember 12th, 2006 at 1:49 pm

May I ask how many have you had in total? I honesetly believe the more you have the more effects it has on you. ECT destroyed my life. AFter many years I am no longer taking meds, as I stopped them myself and am starting to feel a little better. However, I still have dificulty in remembering and learning things that I once knew.

cindyFebruary 8th, 2007 at 2:04 pm

Why do you not mention the medical side effects?? My sister just finished her 4th SHOCK Treatment. She is in ICU with her lungs full of blood clots. She is “lucky” to be alive. She has always had her physical health, but depression for 10 years. Now she has physical or mental health.

Ed Rodriguez-RylandJune 24th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Hi! I’m the husband of Michele who, the article listed above and published on the front page of the Daily Oklahoman is all about. I’ve been with her for all of those (now) over 250 ect’s. (By the way, she had all of those while she was going through her Masters Degree at Univerisity of Oklahoma.)
I’m proud of my wife for how hard she has tried to defeat her depression.
It’s true that there are side effects to ECT. Short- term Memory loss and after quit a few ECT’s, some long term. But in her case, over 95%m of those memories she lost were of the aided recall type and therefore she regained all of the memories she wanted to.
There are other problems that no one seems to be mentioning. The ability to learn can be more difficult and slower. MIchele has to now, “Peg” or “Que” things she wants to learn or remember.
But according to Michele, “what’s the trade off?” Do you commit suicide? or do you choose to live a life without some memories and with a little less ability to learn?” Michele chose the later and has been happy about her decision since.
She finished her second Masters Degree and has decided to go into medicine to help people.
I’m sorry about those people that have had negative side effects with this procedure. But, with any procedure that you are put to sleep, you will run many risks both from the process and the medicine to put you under. You have to weigh those risks. Every time we went to the hospital for Michele’s ECT, she wanted us to say prayers for her.
She still said, “it’s worth it> and, if I die, I wanted to commit suicide for years anyway!”
(I think that was a joke.)
Ed Rodriguez-Ryland

jenny schmitzOctober 7th, 2009 at 1:08 am

I appreciate your honesty. The fact that your loved one, “looks forward to Ects” is of concern to me. The fact that, “she used stacks of photos to refresh her memory, but says she’ll never be the same: ‘I feel like I’m short circuiting my brain’ seems quite accurate. I have no part in your life, and , in fact, I have recommened several persons to have ects (to my dismay). But, I feel obligated to tell you that ects are a slippery (how do you spell that??) slope. I advise anyone to try all drug regiments, and if none of that works, check into a “mental ward” (which, there is a more pc name for that!). If you haven’t tried every combination of drugs, and been in every “facility” within the country, you must make a choice about ects. If, after exhausting every medicine and group home or mental facility,you find no relief in your condition, then it is time to consider ects. But, please do not make the mistake of jumping to the idea of having ECTs. Regardless of what any doctor will tell you, ects will make you lose a lot of your memory. It may not be a particular year, but, it will manifest itself in all the years in which the person recieving ects has lived. For instance, someone may remember first grade, but lack the ablilty to remember much more until tenth grade. Once you have ects, your memory becomes permanetly (sp?) lost. As I said before, certain memories may remain, but others will not. Unfortuneatly (sp) , we don’t get to choose which memories we would like to remember and the memories we would like to discard. Bottom lne– please seriously consider the choice ot have ects. It’s not just “another treatment.” Ects will change your life forever.

Pamela BerrethJanuary 25th, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Thanks, Ed. I am an education person so your comments are encouraging.
Jenny, you didn’t specify as to whether or not you had ECTs yourself. I take it that you either have an incredible insurance plan or are incredibly wealthy. Going into a psych ward, less yet many, is expensive in itself, not including the loss of income during that time if one does have ins. for the hospital.
I have treatment resistant depression. I am currently on 4 meds; I have tried numerous meds over a 28 yr. period along with counselors and psychiatrists and neurologists and…. I have a strong Christian faith, and so also have had many prayers; I speak scriptures and positive affirmations – I’ve tried everything, other than going into a facility. I already have tremendous difficulty with concentration, memory, inability to do daily tasks that I am unable to obtain full-time work or would not have the ability to perform if I did have one. It would be a year before ins. would cover a preexisting condition, and then how does one take the time off from work, and then, how to now keep that job after being in a psych ward!
The past year has been next to unbearable. My counselor has recently mentioned ECT. I raised two boys on my own, and so I dread the thought of losing those memories. On the other hand, I’m not really living anymore.
Are there more positive testimonies or articles out there? With the frequency that it is done, there must be, but I’m not finding them. Are the long-term, bad memory problems the rule or the exception?

Ed Rodriguez-rylandFebruary 27th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Thank you all for your wonderful responses. I can feel your pain, those of you that have had major problems with the orocedure.
Also, do you know that, having severe, life-long, treatment resistant depression has a very hig probability of making you forgetful?
Also, It is my understanding that the most dangerous part of ect is the anaesthesia.
Again, I’m soooooo sorry for your memory loss. And I doo understand how must feel. We reied everything in existence before ect. Nothing worked. I personally saved her life over 20 times. Serius, I mean Serius attempts. (OOOOPS Sorry for the misspelling)
I guess all I can say is what Michele has told me over and over.
What else is there? It’s either this or death. Which do you chose?
I really wish there was more in the medical field to offer. But, I think there is not enough money being made by the parmaceutical, hospital & medical communities to make it really worth it to come up with a real solution.
You know that, if they were making a lot more money, there’d be a bunch of solutions.
But, very depressed p[eople can’t work, etc. So, unless they have some well of family with insurance, the medical commuinitty won’t ever be making much money on this.
Feel Your Pain, Ed

Ed Rodriguez-RylandSeptember 1st, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Just an update on how My Michele (Rodriguez-Ryland) is doing. Michele has now had over three hundred ECT’s. She’s still alive. She’s still battling her lifelong depression. Y’know, she went through the University of Oklahoma for another Master’s degree and graduated with honors, was named the Neusdtad Researcher of the year and received a scholarship for her research on ECT. This was accomplished over a five year period while she had willingly asked for and received at that time over one hundred and seventy five ect’s. (175) She has been quoted in school’s of Medicine Journals around the world (U.S., Germany, England, Various countries of now defunct Russia, and many others)
The General, Medical, Psychiatric research knowledge around the world today is that the only thing that can give someone as deep into depression as Michele is ECT. WE now know it’s relief is immediate. Of course how much relief is dependent on how deep the depression. We know that deep depression causes forgetfulness. It has been well documented that many times the patient receives ECT and then can remember things they couldn’t before.
We also now know that the most dangerous part of the treatment is the anaesthesia. (It’s very scary) We know that they have helped people remember more after ECT due to adding Oxygen while under anaesthesia.
Yes, if you have ECT, you may forget things. But, are they really totally forgotten?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Most times, things forgotten can be re-remembered or re-learned. It all depends on how much you “Work your brain” after your ECT’s.
We’ve learned that your brain is like a muscle. When you want to improve the functioning of a muscle, you work it. Same with your brain.
Yes, it IS a pain in the A_ _ to do all this work! But, what is the alternative?
Michele is a voracious reader and researcher, especially on the brain.
Some Medical schools have begun to call Michele, THE “POSTER CHILD FOR ECT”.
She is now searching for a school of medicine to become an MD.
I’ll guess that she’ll specialize in the mind.
Those of you out there that suffer from this horrible condition, I truly feel your pain and the pain your loved ones willingly go through with you.
Our advice is to keep learning and researching about this condition. Learn about this as much as you can so that you can make informed decisions for yourselves, and Not just listen to those who’ve had a few and either love it or hate it from limited experience.
Sincerely, Ed Rodriguez-Ryland

Ed Rodriguez-RylandDecember 10th, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Hello again. Time for another update on my Michele and possibly some responses to Many people who have written both for and against ECT.
Every time Michele and I go to the hospital for her ect treatments, it’s scary. She wants me to say prayers for her before she goes in. But, she still does it. Even though there ARE some side effects.
According to Michele, The side effects are better than committing suicide.
I guess I can’t respond to that. Because, I’m selfish. I want her alive. So, I go along with it and worry every time.
But, here’s the deal. After over 350 ECT’s she’s extremely happy with the results ans so am I.
I truly believe that it does not help some people. But, After being there and watching this go on for 13 years, I can tell you from actually seeing the change in the patients and talking to them, about 90% of the patients feel immediate relief from their severe depression.
However also believe Juli’s observations.
It seems logical that she hears many horror stories. I don’t.

Marjory PaupAugust 10th, 2011 at 12:09 pm

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cheryl sobolewskiOctober 20th, 2016 at 11:30 am

i can understand all of the controversy concerning ECT. in my opinionthe risks associated with treatment can and do co-incide with everyday living.

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