You are about to go in for a major surgery, you’re already nervous and shaky. The last thing you are expecting is to wake up during the middle of it. The terror and pain you feel is real but you are unable to move or make a sound with a tube down your throat and your body filled with sedatives. You continue to stream in and out of consciousness due to the pain and trauma you’re experiencing. You try to move, blink, scream, anything to get the attention of the doctors to stop or help you. Unfortunately, you are part of the 1% about 21,000 patients per year who experience what is called “anesthesia awareness”.
When going under general anesthesia a patient is given medications which are intended to make the patient unconscious and pain free. However, if not given a proper amount of anesthesia, or due to an equipment failure, or a human error, consciousness can return to the patient. Due to a heavy sedation most patients aren’t able to communicate that they are awake. They feel trapped in their own bodies. Patients may hear doctor’s talking, feel the pain of the surgery, and be fully aware what is going on around them without being able to communicate.
Several patients don’t remember until they are fully recovered out of surgery. Many cases of anesthesia awareness result with the patient having horrible flashbacks of the event which many times lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and suicidal thoughts. One such case is of a Baptist Minister from West Virginia who felt abdomen pain and went under for an exploratory surgery. The staff gave him paralyzing drugs so he wouldn’t twitch during surgery but they failed to give him general anesthesia until 16 minutes after the first cut into his abdomen. He experienced awareness throughout the surgery and two weeks of having painful nightmares, insomnia, and PTSD so horrific that he ended up taking his own life just weeks after.
Another famous case of awareness happened to Carol Weiher in 1998 when she was having her right eye removed. She woke up to hear disco music playing and to the doctor saying to “cut deeper” and “pull harder”. She tried to move but the heavy sedative wouldn’t allow her to. During some time throughout the five hour surgery she either passed out or fell unconscious. When she woke up she began to scream. “All I could say to anyone was, ‘I was awake! I was awake!”.
Even Hollywood has gotten in on the anesthesia awareness fear and created a movie called “Awake” where the character goes under for heart surgery but is awake and hears the conversations of the doctors who are plotting to kill him.
Despite the improvements of the quality in today’s anesthesia care, awareness during anesthesia still occurs. Research into the causes and prevention of awareness is still ongoing. New monitoring technologies are being created to ensure patients stay unconscious and pain free. Brain monitoring devices can be helpful to measure the depth of consciousness, but they alone are not a guarantee and are not common in most operating rooms. Patients should meet with their physician and anesthesiologist before any procedure to discuss the possibility of awareness, their approach they will be using and how they will be monitored throughout the surgery.
Even though many victims of awareness are not able to directly signal their distress, with careful observation and monitoring the physician should be able to pick up on the signs. Signs such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of pupils, sweating and formation of tears. Unfortunately many anesthesiologist fail to give their full attention and so such cases occur.
Many who have experienced anesthesia awareness describe it as the worst experience in their life and psychologist have often compared the emotional trauma to that of a rape victim. Do not take anesthesia awareness lightly.If you experienced anesthesia awareness be sure to speak to your family and doctors about the experience.
You may also want to contact a medical malpractice attorney who is practiced in such cases. Such as the experts at Tiano O’Dell Medical Malpractice Attorneys in West Virginia, who have experienced anesthesia awareness cases.
William Tiano explains that “Anesthesiologists are required to undergo extensive training in order to master the many complications that may arise during surgery. If an error occurs, the patient may experience brain injury, nerve damage, broken bones, pneumonia or even worse. In those instances where the anesthesiologist and other medical professionals were negligent in their duties, the injured victim may seek compensation in a medical malpractice lawsuit.”
Many people of awareness cases also seek therapy or groups after such an experience to help cope with their PTSD and other anxieties. Carol Weiher the woman who famously experienced awareness while undergoing an eye removal has created the Anesthesia Awarness Campaign , for support for people who have experienced similar cases. For more information visit her site, and know that even though cases of anesthesia awareness are rare you are not alone.