Montreux Counselling Centre

Reports of Lena Zavaroni’s death, described as one of natural causes, is littered with failures and nebulous explanations about the treatment she received during the years leading up to her death. Many give mere justifications why the treatments did not work and emphasise the “huge problems faced in attempting to treat her illness.”

The inquest heard that a friend of Ms Zavaroni wrote to the hospital to inquire about brain surgery in 1998. Brian Simpson, the consultant neurosurgeon who carried out the operation at the University Hospital of Wales said that he had been satisfied that all the requirements of the 1983 Mental Health Act had been strictly adhered to in that all other possible treatments had been given before having to resort to brain surgery.

It’s described as keyhole surgery to partially interrupt the nerve pathways that control emotions. Interestingly, however, the hospital were quick to stress that it was not a lobotomy, nor was it an operation for anorexia, for which there is no known cure. The relationship between illness and operation is not clear.

Mr Simpson, said that a brain scan had confirmed that the operation had been successful. He also stated that Ms Zavaroni had only mild confusion afterwards (a normal side effect) and that it had cleared up quite quickly. he further stated that,  “She seemed surprisingly cheerful”. However, a few days later her condition worsened and she lost 20 per cent of her body weight, taking her down to three-and-a-half stone.

On September 29th Ms Zavaroni contracted bronchial pneumonia and her condition deteriorated she subsequently died on the evening of 1 October. Mr Simpson said he was surprised by her sudden weight loss and the infection. “By that stage she was getting better.”

Mr Simpson’s claim that the operation had been successful reminds me of that famous quote by Ernest Hemmingway after receiving numerous treatments of ECT, “it was a brilliant cure, but we lost the patient.” Mr Hemmingway committed suicide just two days after leaving the famous Mayo psychiatric clinic.

Recording his verdict, Dr Addicott said Ms Zavaroni had understood the risks of surgery and still wished to proceed. “There is no distinct and definite connection with the operation. In conclusion I would say it was natural causes.”

Lena had suffered from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa and depressive illness for over 20 years, she had been prescribed numerous drugs, had undergone ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) and a brain operation none of which had been effective in curing her condition. Yet she died of “natural causes.”

The Guardian gave a more poignant and pragmatic version that questions the psychiatric practices that were carried out on Ms Zavaroni and delved into its questionable background history. Below is a summary of the article.

It began by citing the 1975 release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which dealt a severe blow to the reputation of the psychiatric profession as the treatments it showcased were seen as relics of a cruder and crueller age of medicine highlighting clumsy tools and being abused by pitiless staff to suppress free will and individuality.

British doctors supervise 1,300 ECT treatments each week. Most of these patients are women and many are treated without their consent.

Lena Zavaroni died after receiving “pioneering surgery namely, “a leucotomy” and “stereotactic surgery”, both of these terms for what is essentially a lobotomy. This involved surgeons opening up the skull and destroying parts of the frontal lobe of the brain by hacking through the fibres which attach it to the rest of the brain.

Psychosurgery has probably been around for more than 40,000 years. However, it was only in the last years of the 19th century that it acquired a scientific gloss. In 1894, a Swiss surgeon experimented by selectively destroying parts of the frontal lobes of several patients in a bid to help control their psychotic symptoms.

Two American surgeons developed a quick and easy version which could be performed in just a few minutes under local anaesthetic. With one slight hammer blow of an ice-pick instrument through the front of the skull followed by a rapid sideways movement the fibres to the frontal lobe are severed. In the 40s and 50s, an estimated 50,000 patients were given lobotomies worldwide.

It soon became apparent that the side effects were, to put it mildly, undesirable. Lobotomies were grossly abused. They were unnecessary and many people suffered very severe personality damage.

But in fact, the operation has quietly survived the bad publicity. Today, in what proponents call “neurosurgery”, the holes cut in the skull are much smaller, and carefully targeted sections of the nerve fibres are burnt out. There are several versions of the operation, involving different parts of the lobe and different methods of cauterising the brain tissue, but the procedure is still essentially a lobotomy.

Yesterday it was confirmed that 35-year-old Lena Zavaroni, who weighed little more than three stone when she died, was being treated for chronic depression, not anorexia. In the UK this surgery is only used – as a last resort – in cases of severe depression or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Keith Matthews is professor of psychiatry at the Ninewells Hospital in Dundee said, “Our patients… have usually been exposed to just about every treatment available with nil impact. The surgery… remains highly controversial, largely because no one really understands how the brain works or why such procedures sometimes do seem to help.

These doctors are undoubtedly well-meaning. But the simple truth is that this surgery destroys parts of an organ doctors are still struggling to understand. Mind, the mental health charity, wants the surgery banned. “It’s irreversible and there’s no evidence that it works,” says a spokeswoman. “We can’t find any justification for carrying on its use.”



5 Response to Lena Zavaroni

  1. Robert Campbell Stonebanks (Robcamstone) on 5th February 2013

    If as Brian Simpson, the consultant neurosurgeon who carried out the operation was correct and all the requirements of the 1983 Mental Health Act had been strictly adhered to then why was Ms Zavaroni not sectioned.

    If she was claiming that she would take her own life and as they did the medical professionals believed her, that along with her other mental health problems should have justified her being sectioned (I have yet to find any info. that she was sectioned)

    If Ms Zavaroni had all the mental health problems claimed, how could Dr Addicott say Ms Zavaroni had understood the risks of surgery and still wished to proceed. That contradicts the state of her mental health.

    Currently we don’t even know what the name of the surgery the hospital carried out. They were quick to state it was not an lobotomy, but not it seems not so quick to say what it was.

    Is it not time for a review of Ms Zavaroni, Life and death, with the possible outcome that the Coroner’s verdict of natural causes be overturned and a verdict of involuntary manslaughter be added in it’s place.

    On the 50th Anniversary year of her birth, should Ms Zavaroni not receive some justice?

  2. Tracy Jones on 2nd September 2013

    i bin in same cardiff south wales hospital where Lena Zavaroni passed on! on fri 1st oct 1999! x

  3. Olivia on 11th December 2013

    I was sectioned in Whitchurch hospital on the same ward as Lena. She was an amazing person and we soon became good friends. There are many horrible things that go on in mental hospitals, things that many people would not believe! Lena was sectioned. There is no help offered apart from medication or other barbaric treatments. What patients need is to talk to someone but there is nothing in place. Lena’s death is a tragedy. I will miss her dearly. I only knew her for a short period of time but she had an impact on me.x

  4. Robert Campbell Stonebanks on 31st December 2013

    With the events surrounding Jimmy Savile and the Operation Yewtree investigation, one has to ask why there is still no justice for Lena Zavaroni? why has her alleged abusers not been investigated and put on trial.

    From the day she came to live in London it’s seems she became a victim of abuse. Yet nothing was done then about it, then or now.

    The media claimed that Lena’s agent had put her on a diet at the age of 10 and years later when her agent was asked if she would like her own daughter to have been treated as Lena was she replied “Well she wasn’t my daughter was she?”

    This is just an example of the many events in Lena’s live that planted the seeds that would grow into Anorexia Nervosa by the time she reached 13.




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