Shock therapy revived as treatment for depression

By Elise Kleeman Staff Writer
Pasadena Star-News

PASADENA – Patricia Wedberg’s overwhelming depression arrived quietly and without cause.

In April, her family noticed she wasn’t herself and seemed tired and run down. In May, she lost her appetite. By the end of July she could no longer function at work. In mid-August she tried to take her own life by suffocation.

When September arrived, Wedberg said, “I was down to 90 pounds, skin and bones, and I was pacing around the house.”

“They put me on different things. I was on Prozac, and that seems to work for a lot of people, but it didn’t seem to work for me,” she said. “My husband was at his wit’s end.”

Fortunately for Wedberg, an article in Newsweek magazine about Kitty Dukakis’ book, “Shock,” caught her husband’s eye. In that book, Dukakis, wife of former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, talks about the treatment that rescued her from her own severe depression – electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

Wedberg’s husband took her to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena for treatment.

“I thank the doctors down there for saving my life,” she said last week from her home in Bishop, where she once again leads a happy and active life. “For me, ECT was the answer. I know it’s not for everyone, but it brought me back to life.”

“\ universally acknowledged to be the most effective treatment in serious depression,” said Charles Kellner, chief of psychiatry at University Hospital in Newark, N.J. Between 65 percent and 90 percent of patients see their depression lift completely after a course of treatment, he said.

But, Kellner said, it’s also “a very serious treatment that should be reserved for major illness.”

During electroconvulsive therapy, doctors administer anesthesia and heavy-duty muscle relaxants and, while the patient is asleep and immobile, send a small current through the front of the brain.

“We’re talking about enough electricity to light up a 60-watt bulb for about a second,” said Richard Meadows, a registered nurse who administers Huntington’s ECT program.

The short jolt sets off a wave of electrical chaos – a controlled grand mal seizure usually lasting 30 seconds to a minute.

Then everything returns to normal, and within 10 minutes of receiving the anesthesia, the patient wakes up. After about an hour and a half of monitored recovery time the patients – who are often treated on an outpatient basis – can go about their day.

Treatments are generally given three times a week until a patient’s depression lifts, which takes eight sessions on average, Kellner said.

“There’s no way this is the power of suggestion,” Meadows said. “They have appetite, they become engaging, they no longer have the depressing thoughts, the suicidal thoughts.”

At first the changes are subtle, but “usually five to six treatments and then they’ll make comments,” Meadows said. “One man told me `You know, I turned the corner at treatment number seven’ – they put a number on it.”

There are side effects, though – which range from mild headaches after the procedure to short term memory loss affecting weeks or months before the treatments.

Dukakis, wife of the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, said she has no memory of the trip to France she took shortly before her first treatment five and a half years ago; Wedburg’s memory is spotty for a few months before ECT, and neither can remember the details of their hospital stays.

But for both of them, the trade-off was worth it.

“All I can say is I have a new life,” said Dukakis, who will speak at Huntington Hospital on Wednesday about her experience.

For many, ECT is still stigmatized, with some Web sites offering outreach for “ECT victims” and calling it “a crime against humanity.”

Much of that condemnation, doctors said, stems from its portrayal in the film “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which Jack Nicholson is reduced to a shuffling, drooling shell of himself after a painful shock contorts his body.

“Enough is enough – that was 1975,” Kellner said.

Hospitals that administer ECT are now strictly regulated, and careful monitoring and medication prevent patients from injury and pain.

And over the last five years, Kellner said, the tide has begun to turn.

“The fact that ECT remains an accepted treatment in every major psychiatric facility has become more widely known,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that ECT is making a comeback.”

Comments (5)

TomasJanuary 24th, 2007 at 1:44 pm

Blah blah blah. The old tirade of stigma due to Jack Nicholson and of a comeback.

JuliJanuary 24th, 2007 at 2:05 pm

LOL. And the media even keeps recycling the headlines.

Shock therapy revived
Shock therapy renewed
Shock therapy makes a comeback

and on and on…cookie cutter media.

GwenAugust 15th, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Does anyone ever get shock treatment for eating disorders? When mental health is the issue with the disorder and depression, long term? I would be interested in hearing.

eric yOctober 31st, 2007 at 7:58 pm

eric y: Gwen, jay whitlow is very interested in your question. whitlow does not have answers but he finds your question fascinating and suggestive. is it possible that the root causes of eating disorders are brain-based and can be treated with ect just like depression? jay whitlow would like to hear from others as well.

jenny schmtizJuly 20th, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Wow, I don’t know any of you. But, it seems like a number of persons have had ects: some are contemplating having ects, others are searching for an answer to any of their problems,some are left with the dumb luck of being stuck within their family. I do not have answers to any of these questions. But, I have had over 17 ECTs in a calendar course of events far too close together. As long as the platonic family holds up, ECTs will never be a concern or option. Times have changed.

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