ECT – the conflict within

DISCLAIMER 1 – EXTRA-LONG POST. You have been warned.
DISCLAIMER 2 – More importantly – this is in no way supposed to be a ‘for’ or ‘against’ type of post regarding any particular therapy/treatment – it is just my opinion and my own feelings about this experience which was very new to me. Bear with me, before rushing to judgement or conclusion – and if you already have formed an opinion without prior knowledge/experience then please stop reading further!)

For those of you who do not know, I have recently started my 6 month rotation in Anesthesia as part of my emergency medicine training, and it has introduced me to a whole new weird and wonderful world that is equal parts unexpected and fun and slightly scary but mostly awesome. But more about that later. Today (and for the past few days) I have been wrestling with some inner demons (wow, that’s not melodramatic at all!) about a recent experience and the ensuing internal conflict broiling inside me. I will try to explain things in my usual way, which is to take you on that journey with me.

So the day usually starts at 7:30 AM, and the rota tells you it’s a different theater every morning – I checked the night before and all it said was that I was assigned to a particular consultant to shadow (read badger/annoy for the rest of the day!) and that we were supposed to be in the “ECT” area (theater?) in a completely different building from the one I had been going to for operations/procedures requiring anaesthetics in the past week. My first thought was ECT? It can’t be electroconvulsive therapy? That’s not still being done in this day and age? But I texted one of my friends in the same rotation as I am, and he said this area was in the building that houses the maternity block, and I thought it was probably some sort of gynaecological/obstetric procedure requiring anaesthesia which is why I am being assigned to this and I am sure I thought of ECV – external cephalic version! I reassured myself and went to bed, woke up the next day bright and early and headed to whatever this amazing day heralded. It was not amazing. Atleast, not initially.

ECT, as it turned out, did mean electroconvulsive therapy – a treatment for drug-resistant psychiatric conditions (please excuse the rough/non-medical language) – and I found out that what I was assigned to today was in fact the ECT suite, a separate entity from the rest of the hospital- where I was shown around while I was waiting for the consultant. There was a procedure room, with anaesthetic stuff and an OT table, and a separate recovery area. There were 4 nurses, a head nurse, 2 health care assistants and 1 psychiatrist/consultant – aside from my anaesthetics consultant and absolute-novice-baby me! The whole area was very peaceful and calm, and the staff were very friendly and spoke in calm, reassuring voices even when they asked me if I would like a cup of tea. I felt myself calm down a bit (I was nervous because A- I had no idea what to expect and B- I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT!)

There were 4 patients on the list for today. 3 of them (the first 2 and the last one) were regulars, here for their 7th, 3rd and 11th treatments, so they did not need pre-assessments doing from an anaesthetics point of view – just a confirmation of their consent for the current procedure (consent did not mean a blanket consent for all treatments, you could consent to the first treatment and revoke consent at any later treatment session, if you were deemed to have capacity. All 4 patients today had capacity) The 4th one had completed 12 sessions of the ECT previously and that usually meant their treatment was over. But their doctor had assessed them and had thought that despite the improvement the patient could benefit from further sessions, and so they had to give another detailed informed consent – because initially they had consented to the 12 sessions, and this was adding on to what they had initially consented for. But I digress – there was just so much to take in and learn that I do not want to miss out on any of the details/finer points that I came across.

So anyway – while we waited for the first patient to turn up, my consultant took pity on the incredulous expression that I had on my face (this was without me realising it) and explained a few things to me, and looked up a very good paper for me to read about ECT. He broke down what we needed to do here, which basically entailed: introducing ourselves; confirming patient details; confirming no changes to medical/pre-assessment history had taken place in the last week since last treatment; putting a cannula in; hooking them up to some monitoring (continuous ECG trace, pulse oximeter, blood pressure, an initial temperature reading) and also hooking them to an EEG machine which is basically just like an ECG of the brain – mapping the electrical activity of the brain; administering the induction agent (usually propofol) and/or a sedative, and supporting the patients breathing before, during and after the procedure till the anaesthetic wears off.  ECT is basically electric current that is run via two ports/electrodes placed at both temples while the patient is unconscious. The current causes your neutrons to fire in a way to cause a generalised toniclonic seizure, and your brain activity is mapped continuously to make sure it has worked, and that the seizure lasts a certain length of time (usually greater than 10 seconds but on average about 30seconds in duration). It is essentially equivalent to being ‘under’ for a surgical procedure, just like you don’t feel the surgeons scalpel or drill, you do not feel the actual shock. Your heart rate and oxygen levels and blood pressure and all that jazz is continuously monitored and in the event of any fluctuations, it is handled by the team of extremely qualified individuals in attendance, as it would be in any surgical procedure. But the actual procedure was what caused me to be so incredulous. Why, you may ask? I will explain, but first let me take you through the first patient’s treatment.

This was a 50-something female, with a history of depression, and she had become so depressed that she had stopped eating and drinking, and none of the medication or combinations of medications had seemed to work on her. I had all this information from her history sheet, and chatting with the consultant psychiatrist made it clear that this was sort of a last resort. She had become anorexic to the point that she didn’t really have the strength to lift up her head from where she lay in bed, to take a sip of water. She was initially medically rehabilitated, her caloric intake monitored and her strength returned, and while she had become medically fit, her depression was still strong. She began this prescribed treatment, and today was coming in for her 7th session. She had been almost a complete mute prior to the first treatment, and was markedly different today. She walked in to the room unsupported (I thought she would atleast be in a wheelchair). She made eye contact with all of us. She smiled at me when I said good morning, and replied shyly that it was indeed a good morning. As they hooked her up to the various monitors she looked around with that smile her face, and gave adequate responses to the questions and requests from the staff members, such as May I put these ECG stickers on you?, and can I put a cannula into the back of your hand? We walked her through the procedure, put her under and after she had drifted off to sleep and we were monitoring her airway and breathing, we put a rubber/foam type thing between her teeth so she wouldn’t end up biting her tongue or lips, and then they placed those electrodes on her temples and …I don’t know what I expected, probably that the patients arms would flail around and her legs would jerk up off the table and it would all be very violent and gruesome. It was certainly difficult to see, but nothing quite as dramatic as that. She just straightened out a bit, feet became a bit rigid and there was a generalise trembling, followed by some twitching. The continuous EEG trace showed she had had a seizure that lasted 34 seconds, and while she became tachycardiac during it, she settled down almost at once after the seizure ended. She began breathing spontaneously after a few minutes and was taken to recovery as she regained consciousness. And now for the crux of this post – the reason why I was so conflicted.

All my life, or at least the last 10 years when I have been a doctor (15 if you count medical school) I have been working with the idea that we need to minimize seizures and we work very hard to figure why someone may have had their first fit, to try and prevent it from happening again, and I have been involved in extensively counselling and reassuring family and patients and parents of toddlers etc on the subject – so the ‘inducing’ of a seizure as a treatment was a bit of a shock – no pun intended! I knew the patient came to no harm from the immediate procedure, the electric current and the anaesthesia, and they actually did not feel anything, much like any surgical procedure (with the added benefit of amnesia as a known side effect of propofol!) and much more importantly, the patients reportedly feel better and they don’t have memory of it etc etc. But having never actually witnessed it before, I had quite mixed feelings about it because it conflicted with my mindset of ‘how to manage a seizing patient’ – as opposed to this current situation – once again, no pun intended! The conflict I speak about is not of the “ohmygod I do not agree with this practise how dare they?!” type of reflection, and I apologise if it sounded that way. Rather it is more of a “everything I feel inherently about this situation is basically not true!” and I had to actively try and work towards not panicking when I saw this patient seize. And the one after that. And the one after that. It didn’t get any easier, and I didn’t get used to it and it really bothered me. I didn’t know what really was most bothersome for me. Was it the fact that I pride myself in being completely professional and see all sorts of unexpected medical scenarios and presentations as an emergency medicine trainee with the calm and focussed approach that is taught and cultivated in my specialty, but that in my almost 6 or so years of emergency medicine experience, I have never been this affected by any procedure or situation? In other words, was it the procedure that had bothered me, or my own reaction to it?

A few positive notes/observations from the day –
*Any patient who can consent because they are deemed to have capacity will be asked for their explicit consent for the treatment, and they will be given the full information regarding it. Out of the 4 patients scheduled for the day, the 3rd one who was coming in for her 13th treatment (having completed 12 previous ones and deemed to still be in requirement of a few further sessions) came in and then declined to give consent for the next one. And, even though she had consented for 12 sessions and had had them, AND she had the capacity to refuse at any time, we respected her decision and she went home. We didn’t just strap her down like a bunch of frankenstein-y mad doctors while cackling in high pitched laughter to administer jolts of voltage against her will – though I will be the first to admit this is what I thought when I first found out I was in the ECT suite, that this was my unfortunate concept of ECT, based on nothing but my (very vivid, it turns out) imagination.
*Also, it has been around since 1938 – there is tons of research on this topic and while it is all shrouded in controversy mostly due to preconceived notions and ideas, there is no denying the absolute faith people have in this treatment.
*The sons of the first patient who’s treatment I detailed earlier were sat outside in the relatives’ room and while the patient was being wheeled to recovery, I went and asked them how they felt the treatment was affecting their mum. They both agreed there was a distinct difference in Mum, that she had begun enjoying her meals – looking forward to what was on the menu for the day,  offering to go to the park with the grandchildren and making plans for one of the sons’ wedding that was supposed to be an out of country type thing. This was in stark contrast to her being in the throes of progressively worsening depression since their father had passed away a few years ago.
*They don’t just administer this treatment without trying anything else.
*It is not like touching a live wire; you don’t feel anything – you aren’t zapped like a Tom&Jerry cartoon situation. In fact, the voltage is so low that I was surprised that while the current was being administered, one of the nurses had their hands on the patient’s chin as a reinforcing/reassuring measure. They were clearly not feeling the effects of a transmitted significant voltage, unlike in a cardiac arrest situation if you administer an electrical shock, you have to be clear and not touching any part of the patient’s body lest you get a shock as well. It is all very professional and clean and protocol-oriented.
*There are a lot of good people working very hard to make the experience as comfortable and easy for the patient as possible.

At some point I will probably do some research into the subject. It has certainly piqued my interest – but I am ashamed to admit I won’t be looking forward to the next time I get assigned to this area, and I dread looking at the rota announcing when I am going to go there next. And at some point I may actually grow to appreciate the whole process. And look beyond the obvious conflict. But today is not that day. Sigh.

2 thoughts on “ECT – the conflict within”

  1. I’d have taken your place, if I could have done. Requested to at least see a suite, or have a walk through session (taken through process, but no ECT) to see what it was like, for a book I wrote, but got no reply to my request. But no, didnt want full session if I could help it! Certainly a subject with polarized opinions, on the whole.

  2. It is significant that you felt bothered and conflicted about this procedure. It suggests you know intuitively that doing this to people is just wrong. And, of course, these desperate people you saw are having Craniocerebral trauma and seizures two or three times a week and some
    Continuously every few weeks for “maintenance” (of their confused, head injured state.
    I hope you do some research into shock. The Bentall and Read literature review on ECT is a good place to begin and Linda Andres’ “Doctors of Deception” is enlightening, to say the least.To find out how it impacts many hundreds of survivors, you can join the Brain Damaging Therapeutics, surviving electroshock group.
    I lead a truly fabulous life for 56 years, raised 3 amazing children, and taught Senior English and Math for 31 years. A bad reaction to a drug I was given spiralled into polydrugging, labelling of treatment resistant depression and bipolar, and ECT. Drugged, terrified, sick, I “consented” to ECT, not informed of the true nature of the risk.
    I lost 27 IQ points and 15 years of memories and now cannot learn, form new memories, or return to my job. I was not suicidal until I was traumatized and brain damaged by ECT. Joining the facebook group meant connecting with hundreds of people with similar damages and disabilities. Shock is unregulated and done differently, with different protocols and consent forms. The consent forms invariably do not list brain damage, permanent amnesia,
    Cognitive dysfunction, and personality changes as possible outcomes.

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