ANGRY POL WOULD REIN IN ZAP-HAPPY STATE SHOCK DOCS|
THE NEW YORK POST
By DOUGLAS MONTERO
May 23, 2001
THE politician's friend had a right to be depressed.
Following the almost simultaneous deaths of his parents, the man's 17-year-old son tied a belt around his neck and hanged himself in a closet.
And so, sporadically from 1996 to 1998, the 40-year-old man underwent electroshock treatment. They made him forget his problems - and parts of his life.
The politician, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), said he spent the weekend with his friend after a legislative hearing Friday, where the pros and cons of the growing use of electroshock treatment at state-run mental hospitals was debated.
Ortiz spent hours observing his friend of 13 years.
How the friend failed to recognize casual friends - like the workers in the local supermarket.
How he forgot the day in 1999 when he stood on the steps of City Hall with Ortiz, when the politician announced a piece of legislation.
On Monday, Ortiz announced plans to create laws that would put a leash on the state's zap-happy doctors and mandate the state Office of Mental Health to conduct a scientific study of its electroshock program and the fate of its patients.
Considering the complexity of the issue, the announcement came at lightning speed - three days after the hearing.
It was a handful of advocates vs. the Goliath of the medical community, OMH, which couldn't explain why there's been a 70 percent increase in electroshock therapy over the past 18 months.
It couldn't explain why OMH is going to court to force a 25-year-old patient to undergo electroshock - even against the will of his parents.
"It's incredible. When I asked if any data was available, everyone said no," a perturbed Ortiz said. "They [OMH] are not doing anything, and the only way they will do it is through a state mandate.
"I'm going to take a giant step on this issue for the rights of the consumer."
Ortiz and Assemblyman Martin Luster (D-Ithaca), the chairman of the Mental Health Committee, have a legitimate reason to be concerned, considering the OMH doctor who testified during the hearing in support of the controversial therapy.
The doctor is the state's electroshock czar, Dr. Harold Sackheim of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, the state's well-respected, cash-producing research giant.
Sackheim didn't bother to tell the committee he has worked as a consultant for the nation's two leading shock-machine producers, Somantics Corp. in Illinois and MECTA in Oregon. He even lists the companies on his 11-page rÈsumÈ.
Sackheim acknowledged in a 1996 Washington Post article that he never accepted cash payments for his consulting work because he doesn't want it to seem like he's personally benefiting.
The money is, however, funneled to his lab - he got about $1,000 from Somantics and "several tens of thousands" from MECTA, the article said.
Sackheim, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, has also gotten millions of dollars in research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health to zap people.
Advocates charge the electroshock program at OMH hospitals is a systemwide experiment, because no government agency has yet officially approved the practice or the machines used.
Ortiz's comprehensive bill would require the state to monitor and inspect all electroshock machines to make sure they are safe and functioning well - which the state, incredibly, doesn't bother to do.
The bill would also require OMH to provide electroshock patients with independent advocates, in case their families are not available, before and after the treatment because long- and short-term memory loss is a common side effect.
Ortiz's bill is one that comes from his heart, triggered by a friend in need who probably won't remember the effort.