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Shock treatment case seems headed to South Carolina Supreme Court

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The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Clair Craver Johnson suffered from bipolar disorder, depression and episodes of mania when doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina started treating her with what was once called "shock treatment" in 2003. 

During 86 sessions over five years, Johnson was put under general anesthesia as hospital staff induced an electrical seizure in her brain.

Long considered a last-ditch treatment for severe mental illness, electroconvulsive therapy — formerly known as "electroshock therapy" — is often used when other medical options have failed. 

As Johnson claims, she was forced to undergo the treatment against her will, refusing to give permission for ECT in 2003.

Her estranged husband gave the informed consent to her doctor, the suit says.

Fifteen years later, Johnson's lawsuits against the Charleston hospital and the doctor who administered the therapeutic shocks are poised to reach the state's highest court while opening a window into a world of treatment few people understand.

Johnson's suit against MUSC dates to 2011, some eight years after her treatment began.

While she could not be reached for comment and her attorneys did not respond to questions from The Post and Courier, her complaint against MUSC contends the treatment made her worse, not better.

The repeated use of ECT caused her "excruciating, intractable pain and suffering, loss of memory, and exacerbation of preexisting mental impairments which ... (Johnson) could have avoided had an adequate assessment of alternative medical options been made by" the hospital, the suit says.

While that may be the basis of her legal dispute, the crux of the fight now is that attorneys representing the doctor and hospital say Johnson didn't file her suit in a timely manner.

They argue Johnson's treatment began in 2003 and that by filing a lawsuit eight years later, in 2011, the legal deadline to sue had long since passed.

They cited the state's "statute of repose," which sets a six-year limit beyond which patients may not sue medical providers for malpractice. 

In 2014, a circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of MUSC and Roberts. The cases were dismissed. 

But Johnson's attorneys appealed that decision in 2015. The state Court of Appeals last month ruled that because her ECT treatment was administered over the course of several years and didn't end until 2008, the deadline to file a lawsuit had not expired in 2011. 

"Because there is evidence that her injury occurred as a result of treatment within the six years prior to her lawsuit, the circuit court erred in finding as a matter of law her claim is barred by the statute of repose," Court of Appeals Chief Judge James Lockemy wrote.

The circuit court order was reversed, but the issue of timeliness soon could be further appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court.

Few in South Carolina were willing to talk about the impact of the case. 

Jon Snipes, a psychiatrist at the Carolina Center for Behavioral Health in Greer, where ECT is administered, declined to discuss the treatment for fear of upsetting leaders at MUSC.

Jerry Chapman, the Carolina Center's regional director of business development, called MUSC a "training ground" for ECT treatment, but also declined to answer questions for this article. 

MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said the hospital "respectfully declines to comment on any pending litigation.”

Likewise, the attorneys representing Dr. Roberts and the attorneys representing his former patient declined comment.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness said the use of ECT, which originated in the 1940s, continues to have negative connotations, even though the treatment methods have become more sophisticated. 

"The reality today is different. People are asleep during the procedure and wake up five to 10 minutes after it has finished. They are able to resume normal activity in about an hour," NAMI's website said.

"Most people have four to six treatments before major improvement is seen. This is followed by additional treatments and in some cases 'maintenance ECT' on a less frequent basis, such as once a month or once a year."

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Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598. 

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