A New Zealand nurse who was repeatedly hospitalised for 12 years and given electroconvulsive therapy more than 200 times has said her fight for justice has been “almost as bad as the abuse”.
Joan Bellingham shared her horrific experiences as part of the abuse in care royal commission of inquiry, which is looking into historic abuse in state care and faith based institutions in New Zealand between 1950 and 2000.
According to the Otago Daily Times, in 1970, at the age of 18, Bellingham was working as a trainee nurse at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch.
She said she had always been “very open” about her sexuality, adding: “I have been gay for as long as I can remember. I never thought of it as something I needed to hide away.”
But her co-workers began to bully her, accusing her of stealing drugs, and the situation soon “escalated”. She was told she was being admitted to a psychiatric ward to treat her “neurotic personality disorder”.
“I didn’t have my clothes with me or anything,” she said. “I had no choice in the matter.”
Bellingham tried to explain to staff that they had made a mistake, but she was ignored and “quietened down” with drugs.
She remained a patient there for 12 years, in and out of hospital for weeks or months at a time.
During that time she was given antipsychotic drugs without any explanation as to why, what the drugs were, or what the side effects could be. According to her medical notes, she was sometimes given three times the normal dosage.
She was also forced to have electroconvulsive therapy more that 200 times, “sometimes twice a day”.
“It felt like razor blades going through my body,” said Bellingham. “I would vomit and cry and beg them not to do it again.”
The repeated electroconvulsive therapy left her with burns scars on her head, and longterm memory loss and headaches. She was also diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2000, which she believes she contracted from the electric rods.
Bellingham said she was often asked questions about being a lesbian by doctors.
She recalled: “He would ask me questions like, ‘How many times a week do you have sex with your partner?’, and, ‘What is it like?’
“I would become very scared and not want to be left alone in a room with him.”
Over many years, Bellingham tried again and again to speak out about her experience, contacting lawyers, doctors and MPs.
In 1987, she made a claim with the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) over the burns to her scalp. It took 12 years before she would receive $10,000 in compensation for the burns and $1500 for chronic headaches.
In 2012, she approached the Crown Health Funding Agency. She received a $4000 “wellness payment”, and part of her legal costs, but the settlement was required to be secret and the authorities refused to admit any wrongdoing.
“I constantly felt like I was battling uphill to get people to recognise me or believe what I was saying actually happened,” Bellingham said.
She added: “The uncertainty with seeking redress was almost as bad as the abuse. My hope is that no one has to go through what I went through.”