Shock therapy trial begins

Man suing Cottage Hospital over memory loss

Santa Barbara News-Press/April 29, 2004
By Chuck Schultz

A civil jury trial began Wednesday to determine whether electroshock therapy that Atze Akkerman underwent for severe depression at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in December 1999 caused permanent memory loss.

Even two years later, the Oxnard man didn't recognize his wife and children, according to his Superior Court lawsuit seeking unspecified damages against the hospital and several doctors there.

"This is a case about a man desperately in need of help who, in the end, lost everything," his attorney, Kendrick Moxon, told jurors during his opening statement. "After the treatments, he lost all memories of his life."

Cottage Hospital lawyers countered that Mr. Akkerman's apparent "global amnesia" was unrelated to the shock treatments but stems from an underlying psychiatric disorder.

"Mr. Akkerman does have what is known as a dissociative disorder, which can include global amnesia," said attorney Patricia Ramsey.

"There's no evidence of harm" to his brain from the electroshocks, added the anesthesiologist's attorney, Mark Connely, during his brief remarks to the jury. "Mr. Akkerman has a severe underlying, long-term psychiatric disability. He needed (shock therapy)."

The trial before Judge Denise deBellefeuille is expected to last about six weeks.

A central issue in dispute is whether Mr. Akkerman was fully warned about the risks of electroshock and gave his "informed consent" for the treatments, as required by state law.

Mr. Moxon said Dr. Joseph Johnson, who administered the shocks simultaneously on both sides of Mr. Akkerman's head, didn't tell the man or his wife that Mr. Akkerman could suffer permanent memory loss. Rather, the doctor indicated there was only a chance of "spotty, temporary loss" of memory. "He doesn't tell them there could be brain damage," Mr. Moxon said.

The Akkermans, he added, "believed what Dr. Johnson told them. They trusted him, they trusted the hospital. They believed the treatment was as promised -- safe and effective."

For Mr. Akkerman it was neither, his attorney said.

Thomas McAndrews, one of the hospital's lawyers, told jurors that Dr. Johnson went over "all the risks and complications of this procedure (with the Akkermans) and they elected to undergo it."

He and Ms. Ramsey also disputed assertions that required consent forms had not been signed in advance by Mr. Akkerman.

When he arrived on a gurney in the operating room for the scheduled shock treatment, "there was no signed consent form," according to Mr. Moxon.

The trial comes at a time when there is a resurgence of shock therapy as treatment for severe depression and other mental disorders.

Hospital officials say the lawsuit is an attempt by the Church of Scientology -- which Mr. Moxon has represented in other cases -- to shut down the electroshock therapy treatment center, the only such facility in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. Mr. Moxon disputes that.

Mr. Akkerman now lives alone in a small Oxnard apartment. His wife left him, and his children say they feel alienated from their father, according to court documents. Once an accomplished pianist, he no longer remembers how to play.

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