Article Title:Our shocking history
Author or Credit:Jacqui Stanford
Published on:6th April 2012 - 12:22 pm
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Story ID:11590
Text:Joan Bellingham on holiday in Brisbane After ten years of fighting, a Christchurch lesbian has finally received an apology for the more than 200 bouts of electroconvulsive therapy she was given in Princess Margaret Hospital. She’s hoping her case will encourage others to come forward. In 1970, Joan Bellingham was a happy and vibrant 17-year-old nursing student who was open about being lesbian. “It was pretty tough going in those days,” she recalls. “But I was the sort of person who didn’t care what other people thought. I was going to be me anyway. Most of my friends that were gay wouldn’t come out because they were too scared.” Her life changed severely when one of her tutors decided she was ‘messed up in the head’ and needed help. The tutor personally drove her to Princess Margaret Hospital, where Bellingham freely told doctors about her sexuality and was immediately admitted, and diagnosed with ‘neurotic personality disorder’. Over the next 12 years Bellingham was admitted to hospital 24 times. From 1973 onwards she had about 200 ECT treatments, was given soap and water enemas and kept heavily drugged. She was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, and her medical records also listed her as an alcoholic and intravenous drug user. In 1984 Bellingham refused any further treatment, weaned herself off heavy drugs and started creating a life for herself, with the support of a new GP. She has been fighting for an apology, compensation and for her medical records to be updated for the past ten years, and now finally the Crown Health Financing Agency (CHFA) has ruled in her favour. “That was amazing for me, and I think a first for the Crown … it’s just a neat feeling,” she says. Bellingham says money-wise, the decision isn’t astounding. “They bound me to not say how much it is, but it’s not worth saying anyway.” However what means ‘a hell of a lot more’ is the apology and the fact the claims she was a schizophrenic, an intravenous drug user and an alcoholic can be removed from her medical records. She’s a tough cookie, saying the horrors she went through as a young woman don’t affect her too much now. In fact she speaks about them bluntly: “I had over 200 ECT treatments and during that time they burnt my scalp. And sometimes I’d have ECT twice a day and then they burnt my scalp again. I had a hell of a hard time and I got $12,000 out of [ACC] in the end for that. And also memory loss of about 25 to 30 years,” she says. “I spent a lot if my younger years in Australia and did a bit of surfing, and it’s all been wiped. My high school years have all been wiped; I can’t remember anything about that. And then ten years ago I was on my way to Sydney and I started to feel really sick, so I went to the doctor and found out I had Hep C and had probably had it for about 20 years and probably contracted that from [Princess Margaret Hospital] too. “ Bellingham lost her ACC claim for medical misadventure when it came to the Hepatitis C because her medical records said she was an intravenous drug user. Now that false assertion has been wiped from her records, she can go back with the claim again. “But I’m not holding my breath, because you know what the ACC’s like,” she says. Bellingham says once she left the hospital she was given no follow-up and was not encouraged back into the work system, and has been on an invalid’s benefit ever since. “When I look back now, I loved the nursing. I also wouldn’t have minded being an accountant or something like that. I got no help, no counselling, nothing, so all my years in a way have sort of been wasted.” Bellingham has had support from her GP and a doctor who used to work at Princess Margaret Hospital. She knows others are still waiting for their settlements from the Crown and Bellingham hopes sharing her story will help more people come forward. “I met a woman the other day and I hadn’t seen her for about 20 or 30 years. I couldn’t remember that she’s been in hospital with me and I said ‘well how come you were in hospital’ and she said ‘I was gay’. I said ‘did you get shock treatment’ and she said ‘yeah I did’ and I asked her ‘are you in this case?’ and she said ‘no I can’t talk about it’. It’s too hard for her.” Stories like this make Bellingham want to start up a support group, as she believes there must be others out there who have had similar treatment, “and I’m all for speaking out and saying what I think,” she explains. On reflection, she says her early life wasn’t all bad either. “I had some wonderful times. Mind you New Zealand was a bit slow in those times and I’d pop off to Sydney because the gay scene was far more alive there.” And is there a happy ending for Joan? There sure is. She’s been with her partner for 16 years. “And I have wonderful friends,” she says. If you are interested in getting in touch with Joan Bellingham, or have a personal story about 'treatment' for homosexuality to tell us about, email in total confidence.     Jacqui Stanford - 6th April 2012
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