DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A psychiatric treatment with a history of controversy, electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, has been portrayed in movies as inhumane and painful, but a Nash County woman credits the treatment in its modern form with saving her life.
Once a month, Sharron Sherrod goes under anesthesia to get a pulse of electricity to her brain, powerful enough to cause a seizure.
She’s one of about 100,000 Americans receiving electroconvulsive therapy. She considers it her last hope in fighting debilitating depression.
For much of the past two decades, depression consumed Sherrod’s life.
Medication and therapy could keep it under control for a while, but not for long.
“Every medication would eventually fail me,” Sherrod recalled. “I had a terrible impact on my family. I love my son more than anything on this earth and there were times that I couldn’t be there for him.”
Her husband, David, felt helpless.
“You don’t know what to do if you’ve never dealt with depression,” he said. “I’m trying to help her feel better and some days, I don’t care what you do, nothing’s going to work.”
Eventually, Sherrod saw just one way out: “I became suicidal.”
“I felt like it was the most logical thing to do. I had tried everything,” she added. “I was compliant with my medications. I showed up for appointments. I had done all that I could do. I had worked in support groups, and nothing worked.”
Before she went through with her plan, she turned to her husband and son.
“I asked David and Elijah to go with me to my psychiatry appointment,” she recalled. “My doctor told me that we had done all that we could do, it was time for me to consider ECT. I burst into tears and I was very afraid.”
Doctors aren’t sure exactly how electroconvulsive therapy can relieve severe depression, but according to Dr. Jacob Feigal, the medical director of Duke’s Electroconvulsive Therapy Program, it is an option for many patients with severe treatment-resistant depression, meaning multiple other approaches have failed.
“It does work when other things don’t,” Feigal noted. “Even despite multiple medication failures and psychotherapy failures, it turns out to have a rate between 60 percent and 80 percent for response and remission.
“It involves placing electrodes on the scalp and inducing a medically controlled seizure under general anesthesia,” he explained. “The risks of general anesthesia are understood and it is a repeated procedure, so the risks have to be taken into account, but compared to the risk of severe depression it is very safe.”
Unlike when ECT was first used decades ago, medications now relax a patient’s muscles to prevent injury during the seizure.
A cuff stops that medication from getting to one foot so doctors can see it move during the seizure.
“We monitor the seizure to make sure it doesn’t go on too long,” explained Feigal.
Patients receive electroconvulsive therapy several times a week until they enter the maintenance phase, getting it about once a month.
According to Feigal, some patients will need ECT for the rest of their lives to keep their depression from returning.
“There are dangers to being depressed, severely depressed,” Feigal continued. “That carries a medical risk too.”
Sherrod is currently in the maintenance phase of her treatment. About once a month, she and her husband drive from their home in Bailey to the Duke Behavioral Health Center in Durham.
Once she enters the treatment room and is placed under anesthesia, Feigal uses a machine to induce a seizure.
The process, from start to finish, takes about a minute and a half.
After observation in a recovery room, she is well enough to join her husband for lunch.
“I feel pretty tired and I have a migraine which is not unusual,” Sherrod explained, but emotionally she noticed improvement. “I feel really good right now after my treatment, and I just feel much better than I have the past few days.”
The day after treatment she described feeling like she’s been in a car accident, with all-over muscle soreness. The soreness generally dissipates within a day or so.
Her biggest side-effect is memory loss.
Several times a day she struggles to remember words and has completely forgotten an event she attended.
“David and Elijah were there with me and talk about it and remember it,” she said. “I don’t remember it at all. That I hate. I hate that.”
Memory loss is one reason that ECT is considered the most controversial psychiatric treatment.
Despite that, the American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, all reference ECT as an option for people with severe treatment-resistant depression.
“A majority of folks have some memory loss during the index course of ECT,” explained Feigal. “A minority, somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent have some memory loss that persists in the long term.”
It’s a possibility every patient must weigh, but Sherrod and her family aren’t looking back.
“I could lose my life or my memories,” she said. “I chose to lose a few memories and continue living.”