Shock therapy hindered recovery, Kenora man says
By Jim Mosher
July 20, 1997
A Kenora man who says he endured almost 25 years of progressive memory loss, coupled with hallucinations and bouts of confusion and depression, thinks he shock treatment he underwent may have contributed to his troubles.
He says the routine use of shock treatment and potentially hallucinatory medication to treat alcoholism and periods of mild depression should be banned.
Jerry Gaudrain's first brush with psychiatry and 'electroconvulsive therapy' (ECT or, more commonly, shock treatment) came 10 years ago, after he discovered his brother dead at their Kenora home.
Gaudrain (not his real name) says he fell quickly into a deep and lasting depression after discovering his brother dead. He began to drink a lot - not every day, but in large quantity during binges that lasted several days. He became suicidal. Soon enough, he found himself in a Kenora hospital where he was initially diagnosed as suffering from a mild form of psychosis called reactive depression.
Doctors at Winnipeg General Hospital - now the Health Sciences Centre - authorized shock treatment. That set Gaudrain, now 57 years old, on a course of treatment he believes kept him ill for 25 years.
"I'd be hearing voices," Gaudrain said during a series of recent interviews in Kenora. "I'd see things. I didn't want to live. I didn't know what I was talking about half the time."
ECT is essentially an electrical stimulation of the brain. It's used to induce cerebral seizures that disrupt normal electrical activity in the brain. A patient is first given an intravenous anaesthetic. Once the patient is asleep, a muscle relaxant is administered intravenously and pure oxygen is given through a face mask. An electrical stimulus is then briefly applied to the scalp, causing seizure activity in the brain and mild muscle contractions. The seizure usually lasts 30 seconds to one minute. The patient is awake five to 20 minutes after the procedure.
Gaudrain says that instead of treating the alcoholism that was at the core of his suffering, psychiatrists in Winnipeg, Kenora and Thunder Bay routinely ordered ECT to 'cure' his illness.
Gaudrain was prescribed a variety of drugs, many of them known to induce hallucinations in small doses, among these so-called psychotropic drugs and antidepressants such as Prozac, librium and lithium.
After more than 50 ECT treatments from 1967 to his last in the summer of 1992, Gaudrain managed to take charge of his own health. But it took a life-threatening car accident to change the course of his life, he says.
Hospitalized on more than 75 occasions during the 2-year course of his apparent illness, Gaudrain says he was routinely released with a veritable pharmacopoeia of drugs prescribed. That surprises Gaudrain now. He worked as a cab driver in Kenora. His doctor never told him not to drive, he says.
"They'd just send me home with more drugs," he said. "If you're alcoholic, why are they sending you home with pills?"
Gaudrain says that since he's been drug and alcohol free, the 'voices' that dogged him for a quarter century have gone.
"It's a miracle I'm still alive," he says of the many years of drug and electroconvulsive therapy. He says it took a year to feel better after his accident five years ago on Redditt Road.
"But without the pills, the urge for alcohol left," he says. "What really helped me was being referred to an addiction counselor in 1992. That's something I needed."
Gaudrain has spent the last four years attending a day self-help and peer support program.
An outreach worker with that program says Gaudrain's experience is far too common. "There are fewer places to file people away," she said. "There are still people being caught in the trap. They're getting this pill and shock routine. Maybe all these people need is someone to talk to."
"I'm one of the fortunate ones," says Gaudrain today. "When I did get off the drugs and ECT, I just never had the urge to drink."
He acknowledges that he did ask for ECT treatments. "They had me so brainwashed. Now I just want to see ECT banned."
While Gaudrain struggles to get his life back together, there are some things that are simply irretrievable.
"There are so many things I can't remember," he says now. "My family went through hell. They can't believe I'm the same person."
"With the ECT and all the drugs, you walk around like a zombie," he said. "I'm the one-in-a-million that comes out of it."
Treatment considered part of the psychiatric arsenal
by Jim Mosher
Kenora psychiatrist Crosbie Watler acknowledges electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was appropriately used in the past, but that's no reason to turn away from its demonstrated therapeutic benefits.
"As we use it today, ECT is a very safe, very effective and very well-researched treatment, " Watler, chief of psychiatry at Lake in the Woods Hospital, said. "There are some demons in the closet from decades ago, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Dr. Watler says ECT is used at the Kenora hospital because it can provide "a prompt, life-saving" treatment for people who are in the throes of extreme depression; those who are suicidal, in particular.
"ECT is a mainstream treatment in psychiatry," Watler said. "In the '50s, '60s and '70s, it was used inappropriately. But over the last 15 years the indicators for ECT have been extremely well stated."
People at extreme risk of self-harm and those suffering extreme forms of mania are among the candidates for the electrical therapy.
"There's not been a single documented case, with the way ECT is used currently, of brain damage," the Kenora psychiatrist said, noting past ECT therapy was performed without oxygenation (supplying oxygen to the brain) and with greater electrical current.
Treatments are now administered under general anaesthetic.
Patients also receive a muscle relaxant to eliminate or reduce muscle spasms and convulsions, such as accompanied past treatments.
Watler is not alone in his profession. Psychiatric associations in Canada and the United States endorse the treatment, even though both groups acknowledge no one fully understands why ECT is effective.
"The mechanism of action of ECT remains uncertain, as do the mechanisms of action of antidepressant medications," says Dr. John Lipsey, associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "However, ECT remains an effective and often lifesaving treatment for the most severely ill psychiatric patients. Eventually, it will be replaced by more specific physical treatments so that induction of a generalized seizure will no longer be necessary. In the meantime, the continued careful use of ECT in selected cases is imperative to save lives and alleviate suffering."