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Kitty Dukakis: Electroshock Therapy Has Given Me A New Lease On Life


Kitty Dukakis had struggled a lot with addiction. First, it was amphetamines and then alcohol. These addictions were masking deep depression. But over many years, nothing was helping. Finally, she turned to something more daring, electroshock therapy, and it seemed to work. Now Kitty Dukakis and her husband, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, are outspoken advocates for this often stigmatized treatment. They spoke to us from their apartment here in California. Governor Dukakis is teaching at UCLA this winter. And we looked back to 1988. Michael Dukakis lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush. And the bottom fell out for Kitty Dukakis.

KITTY DUKAKIS: It was pretty devastating, a loss like that after such intensive involvement for both Michael and myself and for our children, for John, Andrea and Kara. It was difficult and affected me psychologically a lot.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It was getting pretty hopeless. I mean, I'm an inveterate optimist and there's always something out there. Kitty calls me the prince of fine, you know, that everything's fine. We're going to make it fine. But I got to tell you after - here was this beautiful, brainy wife of mine. And yet every eight or nine months, she'd started going down, goes through three or four brutal months. And to have this happening over and over and over again was devastating for her and frustrating for the rest of us.

GREENE: Now, the real turning point came in 2001, many years after that political defeat. Kitty Dukakis was ready to try electroshock therapy. This treatment, which is today called electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, involves going under with general anesthesia. Electric currents are sent into the brain deliberately causing small seizures. Kitty Dukakis was apprehensive.

K. DUKAKIS: I was willing to try this new treatment. And the night before, I was anxious about it. I was afraid I might drink and I would then be ineligible for the treatment. And so I asked the doctor to hospitalize me the night before.

GREENE: Now, she went through the treatment, and Michael Dukakis says that initial treatment produced a big and positive surprise.

M. DUKAKIS: The first treatment ended the depression...

GREENE: Really?

M. DUKAKIS: ...Just like that.

K. DUKAKIS: But that - we need to say right out front that that was very unusual. I've hardly met anybody who has had such immediate response.

M. DUKAKIS: But you can imagine to finally find something that effectively ended it.

GREENE: How could you tell, Governor, that something was different, that it had worked so quickly?

M. DUKAKIS: I picked her up. She was the old Kitty. We get into the car. I headed for home. It happened to be our wedding anniversary, and she said let's go to dinner tonight. And, you know, I almost drove off of Storrow Drive. I mean, I had left this woman in terrible shape at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and here she was alive, smiling and doing great.

GREENE: Do you remember that moment, Mrs. Dukakis, when you got in that car?

K. DUKAKIS: You know, it's a (laughter) vague memory. It's so long ago, 20...

M. DUKAKIS: Long time.

K. DUKAKIS: Yeah. It's about 24 years ago.

M. DUKAKIS: But I'll tell you, I remember.


GREENE: Kitty Dukakis receives electroshock treatments to this day under the direction of her longtime doctor, Charles Welch. Now, electroshock can have side effects, including memory loss, and for others that has been worse than it's been for Kitty Dukakis. But her progress has made this couple public advocates for this therapy, and they really want to battle the stigma. It's a stigma that Hollywood contributed to with Jack Nicholson's stomach-turning depiction of an electroshock session in the 1975 movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."

K. DUKAKIS: The stigma is from that movie. It was so strong at the time.

GREENE: Was that movie accurate for 1975?

M. DUKAKIS: No, no, it was not. By that time, the treatment had changed dramatically. But in the '50s, there was no question that that was what the treatment was like. But by '75, there had been many, many changes. And they continue to refine the treatment and make it better and better and better.

GREENE: Well, what do you tell people who hear about the memory loss and some of the side effects that are real. I mean, there can be some dangers. What do you tell people who are afraid of that?

K. DUKAKIS: Well, I talk about my own experience, and one of the advantages of the support group that I began was that many of us - I'm able to talk about it and to talk about the experience and how our lives had changed so appreciably.

GREENE: Do you hear from some people who have had side effects, who have had negative experiences?

K. DUKAKIS: Yes, I've talked about that and talked about the fact that, you know, I had some slight memory stuff and I - the example that I give is that I pick up Michael very often at Northeastern.

GREENE: These - the university where he does teaching, yeah.

K. DUKAKIS: I would get halfway there, a routine that I knew by - so well and I would stop and have to call him and get directions. This happened two or three times.

M. DUKAKIS: And very temporary. I mean, this would disappear in a matter of days.

K. DUKAKIS: I also want to add that patients have a right to question their doctors. And Dr. Welch, for us, was just so reasonable about every concern we raised and is with his other patients.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you both this - why dedicate so much time to this cause? Why is it so important to you?

K. DUKAKIS: Well, part of the reason is that there is so much misunderstanding and still has been even in the media. There had been very difficult articles to read that were full of untruths about the treatment.

M. DUKAKIS: And if you know people who have or are suffering from depression, David, there's nothing worse. And if there is a treatment out there that can have the kind of impact that it had on Kitty and now has on thousands of people - I mean, McLean Hospital in Massachusetts...

K. DUKAKIS: Where I'm being treated.

M. DUKAKIS: ...Is now doing ten thousand treatments a year.

GREENE: Sounds like this has really changed both of your lives.

K. DUKAKIS: I certainly feel that I have had a new lease on life, and I feel very fortunate and full of gratitude for that.

M. DUKAKIS: And, you know, as the husband of Kitty, I don't have to tell you that the difference is just dramatic. And the fact that she's now in a position to encourage literally thousands and thousands of others to try the same thing is a great thing to be able to do.

GREENE: All right. Well, Michael and Kitty Dukakis, it has been a real pleasure, and thanks so much for taking the time for us.

K. DUKAKIS: Thank you so much.

M. DUKAKIS: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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