Every year, thousands of people undergo successful surgeries- but leave the operation table as if waking from a nightmare. Inadequate anesthesia dosage may be strong enough to immobilize a patient but weak enough allow them to wake up during surgery, an incidence known as “anesthesia awareness” which victimizes patients in 20,000-40,000 of the 20 million surgeries performed each year in the U.S.
Carol Weihrer woke up an hour into surgery- with two hours to go
One such victim is Carol Weihrer, who in 1998 woke up while her right eye was being surgically removed. Although she felt no pain, she was aware of the eye being pulled from her head, and for the remaining two hours of the procedure was unable to communicate to the doctors that she was awake.
“Cut deeper,” she heard one of the doctors say. “Pull harder.”
Weihrer subsequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the experience prompted her to become an activist for other victims. Although untrained in medical and mental health, Weihrer has been invited to speak to medical professionals at annual conferences about anesthesia awareness. In April 2010, Weihrer appeared on the Dr. Oz show to discuss and promote awareness of the phenomenon.
From a wide-awake surgery, to overwhelming mental distress
Baptist minister Sherman Sizemore’s encounter with anesthesia awareness is another notable case. Sizemore went into a surgery in January 2006 to diagnose the cause of abdominal pains and remained awake the entire time.
Drugs were administered at the beginning of the procedure to paralyze his muscles, but Sizemore felt the doctors cutting into his abdomen. He was not given a general anesthesia until 29 minutes later. In the weeks following the procedure, Sizemore was tormented by mental distress, and in February 2006, he committed suicide.
Some patients experience no pain or discomfort while awake
Weihrer and Sizemore are not representative of every victim of anesthesia awareness, however; some victims wake up for only a few seconds or minutes instead of throughout the procedure, and may not experience pain at all. Some may be fully aware while others may experience a hazier state which they remember, more or less clearly, afterward. A Cook County mother remained awake, although paralyzed, for a three-minute caesarian section in 2002; she sued and was awarded $165,000.
Cases of anesthesia awareness are reported 100-200 times each day in the US. Many brief, painless cases go unreported. A study in 2002 involved interviews of nine patients, two years after they had experienced anesthesia awareness. Four of the nine were still severely disabled due to the psychiatric/psychological impact.
The Anesthesia Awareness Campaign, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization created by Weihrer, offers news and information and “wants to see the prevention of, and compassionate and effective treatment for victims, and to bring about universal awareness of awareness.”