A Jolt to the System

This small electrical device may be the last hope for the chronically depressed

As her weight dropped, she was hospitalized for three weeks. During that time, she was given six electroconvulsive therapy sessions, which helped. But "it felt like something from the Middle Ages. Just the thought of it," she says. And it affected her memory. VNS, in contrast to electroconvulsive therapy, delivers small charges of electricity over years of time. The amount of electricity is less than the charge of a single battery one would put in a flashlight. "A trivial amount of electricity," Rush says. "You can't feel it."


"I don't mind showing you," says the tall, lanky man, lifting his blue, button-down shirt. "I've shown everyone else."

A leading depression investigator, Dr. John Rush of UT Southwestern is heading the study of the VNS device, which stimulates a nerve that sends messages to parts of the brain affecting mood.
Mark Graham
A leading depression investigator, Dr. John Rush of UT Southwestern is heading the study of the VNS device, which stimulates a nerve that sends messages to parts of the brain affecting mood.

There, beneath the skin's surface, is the visible outline of the VNS device.

Seated in an office at his father's Fort Worth business, this 48-year-old father of two recalls in his soft-spoken voice how no anti-depressant, no therapy ever worked. VNS was a last hope.

"It'll be two years this February," Tucker Davis says. As he tucks his shirt back in, this well-groomed man describes his lifelong, chaotic struggle with depression, which landed him in the hospital two times. Whether his illness was the result of genes or from life, he can't say. "We'll never be able to peel the onion to know the entire truth," he says, but offers possible explanations rooted in both. There's a sister diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a stepfather whom Davis says was "physically abusive" toward him as a boy, and the family business that went bust in the late 1980s. (His uncle and one-time murder suspect Cullen Davis also had a share in it.)

As early as 11, Davis was feeling what would become a constant in his life: worthlessness. There was the day he decided life wasn't worth living and, in his bedroom, impulsively threw himself on a pocket knife. But the tip broke off, and he only succeeded in creating a small wound below his belly. He never told anyone about it. "When I was depressed, I didn't see myself as part of the human race," he says.

He married at 24, was a father of two by 30, and was the heir apparent to his father's hugely profitable mining and truck manufacturing business, Ken Davis Industries. There was usually some job, some hobby to help keep his feelings in check. When those inevitable "blue days" got too much, he'd do karate, skydiving, or deep-sea diving. Jogging, too. He'd usually feel that "runner's high," the rush of endorphines, the pain-relieving substance in the brain that can cause a surge in mood. But the high never lasted for more than a few hours, and eventually he turned to alcohol. In the early 1980s, life threw its share of bad breaks at him and his family. The business was in decline, exacerbated by both the fall in copper prices and the publicity surrounding Davis' uncle. "That sure didn't help my stress level," he says. The business held on for a few years with borrowed money, but it finally went into bankruptcy.

By the mid-1990s, Davis was facing his worst bouts of depression and suffered two panic attacks so severe that during one of his two hospital stays, he woke with a memory so impaired that it took about a month to recover it. The doctors had suggested shock therapy, but the thought of its most scary side effect, memory loss, kept him away.

For years, those words--darkness, hole, hell--couldn't describe life for him. Thoughts of death were never far away. "I didn't see it as a selfish act," he says. "I thought it was no different than dying of a terminal disease and wanting to be euthanized."

By then, he was talking about suicide almost daily. He assured his wife, Jilynn, that he wouldn't act on those feelings, but that didn't ease her fears. Then one night, she saw that he'd written a detailed note on his computer about his funeral wishes. "When you live with someone suffering from depression," she says, "it affects every aspect of your life." And there were many times the two came close to divorcing.

"Living with death daily" is what she calls her years of watching her husband slip deeper into a depression. She lost a life partner, someone with whom she could confide in, to share her own worries and fears.

Davis was seeing a psychiatrist in late 1998, when his doctor said that Rush of UT Southwestern had called, inquiring if he had any patients who'd run out of chances. "Pure serendipity" is what Davis now calls that moment.

Davis filled the bill. Soon, he met with Rush and his team. He weighed, as best he could in his "haze," VNS' side effects, the most serious of which seemed to be hoarseness of voice, because the device also stimulates one of the nerves that affects speech.

Several months after the implant, Davis began feeling some slight changes. The world looked less bleak. The panic attacks stopped. He knew it wasn't circumstantial; his anti-depressant dosage hadn't been increased. In fact, it was lower. When a stressful situation would arise, he no longer felt as if the walls were closing in on him, that he was about to die.

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