Ex-patients want end to shock treatment
Sunday Star Times (New Zealand)
PURDY Kim
08-27-2000

Undergoing treatment like being hit by a sledgehammer

A WOMAN who was given controversial electric shock therapy at Porirua Hospital in the 1950s is suing health authorities for damages.

The Hamilton woman, now in her 60s, was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) without her consent and is seeking compensation from the Ministry of Health and the Residual Health Management Unit.

The case follows that of 110 former Lake Alice patients suing the Crown for mistreatment, including ECT, at the hospital in the 1970s. ECT was used to punish the adolescents and children for trivial offences such as not making a bed or not eating dinner.

The group's lawyer, Grant Cameron, said negotiations with the Crown to settle the case out of court "were unsatisfactory" and the issue "would be coming to a head shortly".

Last week, the Sunday Star-Times revealed ECT was still commonly used in New Zealand hospitals, prompting calls from dozens of people who were given the treatment.

The Hamilton woman, who did not want to be named, was given 42 ECT treatments and feared it would kill her. Doctors sent her to hospital after her parents sought treatment for her behavioural problems.

The woman said ECT made her "wake up feeling half dead. Everything was swimming in front of me and I could hardly stand up or walk. It was like being hit by a sledgehammer".

Lying in her bed waiting for the treatment was the worst part, she said. "It was like waiting to be executed. Nurses held you down by the knee and shoulder and we had a gag put into our mouths. Then the big bang came and I was unconscious."

The woman suffered short-term memory loss after the treatments. She said ECT should be abolished. Earlier this year, a patient advocacy group presented a petition to Parliament calling for ECT to be outlawed.

A Ministry of Health spokesman said he could not comment on the proposed legal action until he had seen details of the claim.

Psychiatrists said ECT was a safe and effective treatment for severe and life-threatening depression and was no longer administered in the barbaric and inhumane ways of the past. Patients gave their consent, were anaesthetised and given muscle relaxants.

The psychiatrists said ECT had saved lives and they would have the treatment themselves if necessary.

ECT works by replenishing neurotransmitters in the brain. They are the chemicals the nerves use to communicate with the brain and are depleted in depressed people.

Wellington woman Jillian Hewitt, 53, was given ECT at Porirua Hospital when she was 15, becoming the youngest New Zealander to be treated with shock therapy at the time.

Hewitt had an abusive childhood and took herself to hospital after feeling suicidal. She was transferred to Porirua Hospital, where she was kept for three months and treated with ECT.

"The first time I got it, I didn't know what was going on. The nurses came into the ward and called out names. When the woman in front of me was called, she screamed and tried to run out the door. I didn' t have a clue what was going to happen, but it obviously wasn't good.

"The nurses took me by the arms and put me on the bed. I got an injection, a guard was put in my mouth. When it was all over, I lay in the ward and looked out the window and saw a graveyard. That's where I thought I'd end up." Hewitt said the ECT made her zombie-like and she lost her memory.

"I went back to my abusers because I'd forgotten what they'd done. And I put up with abusive relationships because I was a robot. I didn' t know how to stand up for myself. I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn't know what it was. I became a punching bag."

Hewitt underwent counselling eight years ago and has been dealing with her ordeal since.

"I'm damaged. This has scarred my life. I can't let people get close to me, I don't trust them."

Any visits to the doctor or hospital are traumatic. "I have dizzy spells and am sick from the memories. ECT is barbaric and should be banned. No one should be given it under any circumstances."

Another woman told the Sunday Star-Times she had been given 80 treatments of ECT 10 years ago, to punish and discredit her after she accused a surgeon of assault.

"It was outrageous. You'd get the same effect by hitting someone over the head with a piece of four by two. How anyone can think this is humane is beyond me."

Other former ECT patients spoke of their terror at the treatment and how it had affected their memories.