Dorothy Dundas presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Neurological Devices Panel examining the reclassification of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) devices on January 27, 2011. These are her remarks as published in the public record of the meeting.
My name is Dorothy Dundas, and I am 69 years old from Newton, Massachusetts, and I’ve been waiting 50 years to come before this Panel, those of you who have a power to make a humane decision.
When I was 19 years old, I became sad and lonely, and I tried to kill myself. I took a half a bottle of aspirin, my parents took me to the Massachusetts General Hospital, and thus began my three-year hellish odyssey as a prisoner in the horrors of the mental health system. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and given 50 shock treatments against my will, 40 insulin comas and 10 superimposed electroshocks.
Very early on the dark winter mornings of 1961, three other teenage girls and I were awakened, dressed in johnnies, and told to lie flat on our beds, which we were lined up right next to each other. We were then injected with insulin, and on 10 of those mornings, a dark-suited man would walk through the door. He carried all his equipment in a small black suitcase, this man of death and destruction. He set up his machine behind our heads, one by one. We were curled up beneath our sheets. When they peeled the sheets off of us, forcing us onto our backs, bare and open and vulnerable, I was second in the lineup. Before being turned, I would often peek out from a small secret opening in my sheet to see what they were doing to Susan, the first to receive the treatment. I would make myself watch as if it might prepare me in some way, and then she would shake violently all over. I could no longer watch. I would shiver beneath my sheet, and then they would come to me. I can still feel the sticky cold jelly they put on my temples. My arms and legs were held down, and just before he pushed the shock button, he would ask, is everybody ready? Of course, he was not speaking to me, petrified and stone silent. Each time, I expected I would die. I would wake up with a violent headache and nausea. My mind was blurred. I permanently lost eight months of my memory for events preceding the shock. I also lost my self-esteem. I had been crushed as flat as a pancake. But I was very, very lucky because on one of those cold winter mornings, exactly 50 years ago, my friend Susan never woke up from the shock. She had just turned 17, and when she died, she became a part of me.
The ECT was a violent and damaging assault on my brain and my very soul. It made me emotionally worse, not better. I became catatonic and desperately in fear for my life. To this day, I have great trouble staying focused in a conversation, keeping my train of thought. I forever lost the ability to do math in my head, and before this time, I had been a very good student. When I was given an IQ test a few months after the ECT and asked the population of the United States, I answered 1,000. When he asked me to guess again, I answered 2,000. I remember having no idea where to find the answer in my head.
For me, in addition to losing my train of thought, the most troubling residual effect has been the memories of those traumatic mornings, the violent and abusive assaults on my brain. For far too long, there has been a collusion between the FDA, the APA, the AMA, and the companies which make the shock machine. This is big business, and a lot of money is being made by many at the shameful expense of those who have been harmed over the years.
To me, informed consent is meaningless. Those of us who have already experienced ECT are only the truly informed. Right now this is a human rights issue, and this is a torture issue.
In the end, after three years of hell, it was a kind young doctor who spoke to me in a gentle voice who gave me hope. He took me off all medication, expressed horror when hearing of my experience with ECT —
DR. BROTT: You have 20 seconds.
MS. DUNDAS: — and recognized — I urge you to ban the use of this dangerous and barbaric machine and, by doing so, finally to show the courage and understanding to support the many more humane and holistic approaches to healing emotional pain. Thank you.