Minnesota mental health patient Ray Sandford forced into electro-shock therapy

Sandford says repeatedly: "I don't want to do this"

"This case is particularly egregious," says Dr. Breeding. "Ray Sandford was really the first I heard of somebody being shocked on an outpatient basis."


MARILYN SANDFORD had particularly high hopes for her eldest son. When her three boys, along with their neighborhood friends, would play in a vast sandpit on the far side of their two-acre estate in Eagan, it was clear, even from a distance, that Raymond was in charge.

David Oaks
courtesy of David Oaks
David Oaks

"He was exceptionally bright and had a real gift for verbal persuasion," says Marilyn. "Those boys were a pack, and he was the leader of the pack. We assumed he'd make an excellent salesman."

Ray's father, a contractor by trade, built the family's blue two-story home himself, outfitting the stately split-level with a cathedral ceiling and spiral staircase. With no mortgage to pay and the postwar housing boom providing lucrative work for her husband, Marilyn was able to quit her job as a polio nurse and devote her time to raising the boys.

As Ray entered adolescence, he grew enamored of real estate, memorizing local lot prices and market fluctuations. His goal, he told his parents matter-of-factly, was to be a millionaire by the age of 21.

Shortly after Ray's 17th birthday, it became clear that something was wrong with him. Ray, who had always gotten exceptional grades at Sibley High in Mendota Heights, suddenly dropped out his senior year. He emptied his college fund—about $3,000 his parents had saved up—and bought his own lot in a trailer park in Lilydale, eight miles north.

At first, Marilyn chalked up her son's bizarre behavior to adolescent angst.

"It's very hard to come to terms with the fact that your eldest and very promising child is mentally ill," she says. "That's not something you're ever ready for."

But as Ray's recklessness continued to escalate, Marilyn was forced to confront reality. Out to run some errands, Marilyn glanced in her rearview mirror to see Ray following close behind in his '63 Impala—too close. He whizzed past her, then abruptly stopped. He peeled out around her, nearly smashing into oncoming traffic, then stopped again.

Ray's thoughts and speech, meanwhile, grew more and more disjointed. When Ray was 19, Marilyn's father, a country doctor, visited the family. After supper, he took Marilyn aside and told her what she already knew: "You need to get that boy checked out."

She brought her son to Hastings Mental Hospital. After observing Ray and hearing Marilyn's account of his behavior, the doctors gave Marilyn a grim prognosis: "Your son suffers from severe manic depression. We recommend he be institutionalized."

Ray's new home would be Hastings Mental Hospital, an austere brick building.

"Now his brother is a doctor, his sister is a doctor, another brother is a successful engineer, and then another brother owns and manages property," Marilyn says ruefully. "They're all doing very well and here he is, the leader—and each hospitalization leaves him a little less well-off financially. So now he really has nothing."

In 2005, Marilyn, then 76 and eying her own mortality, contacted Lutheran Social Services, the state's largest nonprofit provider of health care, and asked them to act as legal guardian and caretaker for Ray. She would no longer have any legal say in his future. For Marilyn, it was a difficult but necessary decision.

"I have high blood pressure; I could die tomorrow," she says. "It's ridiculous to assume I could be responsible for someone else's life at this point. I knew we needed to find him a conservator."

By 2006, Ray Sandford had transferred to Community Behavioral Health Hospital in Willmar. Shortly after the move, his manic spells worsened. Sandford grew frustrated with the confines, which only exacerbated his psychosis. According to a report later submitted to a mental court, Sandford was "grossly psychotic, yelling violently and smearing feces all over, urinating wherever and whenever he felt like it."

The meds weren't working. The time had come for an alternative.

In January 2008, staff at Willmar approached Dr. Kevin Turnquist, a psychiatrist who specializes in schizophrenia. Four months after meeting Ray, the doctor petitioned to impose electroconvulsive therapy on the 54-year-old.

At the May 13 hearing in the basement of St. Paul's Regions Hospital, Ramsey County District Judge Teresa R. Warner heard from Dr. Turnquist, as well as from two court-appointed medical examiners who testified that Ray was "not in a position to weigh the benefits versus the risks of ECT treatment."

The hearing was quick, lasting barely a half-hour.

"The Court considered the respondent's family and community, as well as his moral, religious, and social values," ruled Judge Warner. "Based on these considerations, a reasonable person would authorize treatment with electroconvulsive therapy."


THE RITUAL always begins the same.

Just after 6 p.m. Sandford hears a knock at the door. It's his caretakers. They've come to raid his refrigerator.

"No more food for the rest of the night, Ray. Doctor's orders."

After purging the fridge of sandwich meat and the shelves of Doritos, they march upstairs and stash the provisions in a padlocked compartment.

It's not a cruel trick; if Sandford ever succumbed to a midnight hankering for a bologna sandwich, it might very well prove to be his last. That's because, should any food still be sloshing around his stomach during next morning's ECT-induced seizure, there's a good chance he'd vomit and choke to death on the table.

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