Chelmsford patients give evidence – Gill & Herron v HarperCollins & Cannane defamation trial

Weeks 3 and 4, 18 – 22 June 2020 – Cross examination of Chelmsford Private Hospital deep sleep therapy patients

Dr John Gill and former psychiatrist John Herron were involved in the deep sleep therapy scandal at the Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney that was the subject of a Royal Commission in 1989. Gill and Herron are suing HarperCollins Publishing Australia and ABC journalist Steve Cannane for defamation over a 28 page chapter of Cannane’s book Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia

Day 9: introduction to the case

Day 10: defence opening address

Days 11 – 13: cross examination of author Steve Cannane

See this link for the trial’s listing details at the Federal Court in Sydney.

Days 14 – 16: cross examination of DST patients

The witnesses’ evidence in chief has been given in the form of affidavits which are not publicly available. The witnesses were cross examined on that evidence by Sue Chrysanthou, counsel for the applicants, Dr John Gill and John Herron. The following therefore represents some of the challenges to the witnesses’ affidavit evidence.

A court order prohibits disclosure of the patients’ names.

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DST – deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford

Deep sleep therapy (DST) is a psychiatric treatment in which sedative drugs are used to keep patients unconscious for extended periods. The height of its use was from the 1930s to the 1960s.

DST was practised (in combination with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other therapies) by Harry Bailey between 1962 and 1979 at the Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney. As practised by Bailey, deep sleep therapy involved long periods of barbiturate-induced unconsciousness. Wikipedia

Patient CW

CW was admitted to Chelmsford Private Hospital (CPH) for deep sleep therapy in 1973 as a treatment for drug abuse. She said that Dr Harry Bailey told her that he could cure her and that she was told ‘I would never be able to use drugs again.’ She did not remember the doctor discussing the details of the DST with her.

Ms Chrysanthou suggested that CW had in fact consented to ECT. CW responded that it was ‘pretty evident from the nursing notes that I didn’t want ECT’. In her evidence she stated that she would never have consented, because she was terrified. She had little memory of the hospitalisation periods except some incidents of distress when she said she was not allowed to leave or use the phone. That evidence was challenged by Ms Chrysanthou who suggested that the doors were not locked. CW disagreed.

CW said that she returned to using drugs quickly after leaving hospital but checked into a different facility over a year later to commence methadone treatment and eventually withdrew from methadone at a public hospital in 1977.

Counsel suggested that CW had no complaint about her admission to Chelmsford until she saw news reports in 1988.

CW answered, ‘I had complaints, but who do I complain to?’

In reexamination for the respondents, Tom Blackburn SC asked CW ‘when was the first time you became aware that you’d had ECT?’

She answered that she didn’t know until after she’d been discharged from Chelmsford. She said she and her boyfriend met some friends and the friends asked ‘what’s wrong with her? CW said that her boyfriend answered, ‘the bastards gave her ECT.’

She also found out via medical bills that she’d had pneumonia during her treatment but had no recollection of it.

Blackburn asked, ‘After you came out of Chelmsford, how did you feel about what had happened to you [there]?’

‘I was traumatised, I didn’t understand what had happened to me, where I was or why.’

Patient JF

JF was eighteen when he was first admitted to CPH for depression and anxiety in 1975. He recalled being told that he would be ‘going to have a rest for a few days… sleep for a couple of days to give my brain a rest,’ but otherwise had a ‘sporadic’ memory of the admission process.

The witness was shown a form he had signed at CPH that said ‘authorization for ECT’. He agreed it was his signature, but said ‘I doubt I knew what ECT was at the time.’ He said that he was then given pills and passed out. He recalled hallucinating while being brought out of DST.

Ms Chrysanthou suggested that his recollection of what happened was confused by what he’d read in the press in the 1980s. JF said he didn’t take much notice of the press until 1992, and that he wanted to avoid anything to do with Chelmsford.

The witness also gave evidence that he was kept in leather restraints, and that he has memories of ‘great volts of electricity and painful darkness’ from ECT. When asked why a number of such details weren’t noted in a 1992 report made for the purpose of another proceeding, he said that had always been his memory. He was unable to explain why the details were not in the report. He said he had been thorough in what he told the reporting doctor and that those things definitely happened.

Of a subsequent hospitalisation in 1975, JF said he thought it had been an overnight stay but viewing records later realised he’d been there a week. He said he was told Dr John Herron would be administering his treatment. He recalls waking up shaking, seeing oxygen bottles by the bed, and that a nurse told him he’d ‘turned a lovely shade of grey’ the night before and that he’d needed oxygen.

Witness PM

PM had accompanied her husband to appointments with Dr Bailey when he was treated for depression and heroin addiction in 1977. She said that Bailey told the couple he had a high success rate with drug withdrawals. She said Bailey told them her husband would be put to sleep and he would go through the withdrawals, ‘but  he wouldn’t be given drugs’. PM said she asked ‘how do you put somebody to sleep without drugs’ but said she did not get an answer.

PM said that she didn’t know her husband underwent ECT at Chelmsford until the Royal Commission over ten years later when his medical records were examined.

PM’s husband had five admissions to CPH. PM said that he was sedated for fourteen days or more each time. Ms Chrysanthou contended that he’d only had ‘full’ DST on two occasions, in which he’d been sedated for 14 days. On one further occasion DST was cut short when he developed high blood pressure while under sedation.

Chrysanthou questioned PM on whether her husband reported to the hospital that he had stayed off drugs for weeks or months after each admission. The witness said her husband was never able to stay off drugs for such long periods. Ms Chrysanthou put it to PM that her husband kept returning to the hospital because he thought the treatment was helping him. PM replied that ‘he’d just keep saying maybe this time, maybe this time, but it never happened.’ He kept going back ‘because he kept thinking it might work.’

PM said that she had him discharged early on one of the later admissions. On discharge Bailey prescribed the patient ‘high doses of drugs’. She said the couple travelled to Queensland for a short holiday but returned early when her husband was ‘walking around like a zombie…catatonic’. She said she’d had to call a doctor to the motel and that after she showed that doctor the tablets he told her to ‘get him home’ and to take him to the local doctor and ‘not to the doctor who’d prescribed him the drugs.’

She said that he came out of hospital looking like a skeleton.

Patient GW

Patient GW sought treatment from Dr Bailey in 1969 for depression related to her domestic situation.  Her husband was abusive and a heavy drinker.

She broke down under cross examination when she had difficulty remembering precise details of her treatment under questioning. Justice Jagot apologised to her and explained that counsel was obligated to put matters to her, but the questioning was not intended to be critical of her if she did not remember, and it was not suggesting she should remember things. She told her she was free to answer that she did not remember, and counsel would move to the next question.

GW said that she did not want to be there in court, but she was there because she felt that she had to be to speak up about a great wrong.

She said that she lost about two stone (approx. 12kg) during her first admission to CPH, and that it felt like being imprisoned.

Dr Herron had administered the ECT to her. GW said that she did not find out she’d been given ECT until after she’d left the hospital and claimed medical benefits. She said that she did not give her permission for that treatment.

Ms Chrysanthou put it to GW that problems she claimed to have had as a result of Chelmsford were not consistent with her achievements since 1971. GW had completed post graduate qualifications, remained employed until she retired, and had a family. GW disagreed and said that it was with great effort that she’d attained her degrees and managed her life.

Chrysanthou also suggested that anxiety GW suffered since her first admission to CPH was a result of her history with her abusive husband rather than a result of her treatment.

GW said that her depression prior to Chelmsford was due to the marriage she was in but the anxiety arose after her first hospitalisation at Chelmsford and became a real problem after that and remained so all the way through her work life. GW also said that she’d developed memory problems and would forget words during conversations since her time in CPH, and that those symptoms were not present before undergoing ECT.

Day 9: introduction to the case

Day 10: defence opening address

Days 11 – 13: cross examination of author Steve Cannane

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part one – Professors Patrick McGorry and Ian Hickie

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part two – Dr Phillips and Dr Smith, and pharmacologist Professor Whyte

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part three – Professor Gordon Parker

Two former nursing staff give evidence

Former Matron Smith gives evidence

Former Matron Fawdry gives evidence



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