Electro-shock advocate and award-winner Sherwin B Nuland certainly lived an intriguing life. The surgeon, author, and speaker passed away on March 3, at the age of 83. Nuland was a celebrated author in his time, and a leading expert on the morbid subject of death. Nuland’s 1994 book How We Die helped to demystify death for many, and sold over 500,000 copies. How We Die received the national book award, and was highly acclaimed in its time. Nuland had a long career studying and speaking about end-of-life planning and over-medicalization. He is gone, but he certainly will not be forgotten.
Nuland had a terrific sense of humor, and a great sense of awareness- his 2001 TED talk begins with humor, calling out the general morbidity and seriousness of the topics he discusses (like death and mental illness). He spoke candidly about going through a debilitating depression that did not seem to be responsive to talk therapy or drugs. Nuland was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s, where several doctors obsessed over his case and walked away scratching their heads, dumbfounded. The prescribed plan at one point was a pre-frontal-lobotomy, obviously not the most promising option. With hope that he would not end up like the guys in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, doctors continued to advocate for Nuland and to seek answers as far as how to help him. Finally, it was decided that electroconvulsive therapy (more commonly known as electro-shock therapy) would be attempted. And to the shock (no pun intended) of the doctors, it was helpful.
Nuland certainly lucked out with his team of doctors, as the only reason an electro-shock attempt was even made was to appease the one doctor who had believed it to be a good idea. Fortunately, that doctor had been correct, and ECT turned out to start moving things in the right director for Nuland. Though electro-shock never did hit the mainstream of positively thought of options, Nuland taught the world a few valuable lessons: sometimes it is worth trying the option that does not seem like it will work, and even if something has been proven as controversial does not prove that it will not work for someone. In the case of Nuland, trying something controversial saved his life, which definitely makes a point about keeping an open mind.
In the end, Nuland made a more-or-less full recovery. He still struggled with depression on occasion, but he got back to business, continuing in surgery until his semi-retirement, and then continuing on as an author. Though the treatment is controversial, and certainly not the norm in these modern times, Nuland credited electro-shock therapy with his survival and recovery from mental illness. He also ended his TED talk by advocating for those who have also struggled with life or death situations. Nuland shared the sentiment that if he could get through what he did, anyone could rise above their circumstances. Even after his death, Nuland’s legacy will continue to live on through footage of his talks, and through his books which continue to be sold online.
By Bonnie Sludikoff