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The horror of anesthesia awareness

The fear is palpable. You're lying on the operating table unable to move a muscle or speak. Yet, you are aware of everything going on around you as the surgeon deftly cuts through skin, muscle, sinew and bone. The pain is excruciating, the trauma unimaginable.

For most people, this is the point they awaken from a 3 a.m. nightmare, sweating and screaming. But for approximately 20,000 to 40,000 patients per year — roughly one or two out of every 1,000 surgical and medical procedures done under general anesthesia — the scenario is all too real.

Anesthesia awareness is rare

You may have never heard of such a condition because its occurrence is rare. But retaining sensation and/or awareness during surgery can be the most traumatic experience that a patient will ever have.

There are certain circumstances and conditions that make it likelier to happen. Patients who have multiple medical issues are at higher risk for anesthesia awareness, as are those whose conditions preclude using the normal dosage of anesthesia. It's more common during emergency surgeries after physical trauma and during emergency C-sections and cardiac procedures.

Also, more patients report experiencing anesthesia awareness during procedures using so-called "twilight" sedation via intravenous medications. It's frequently used in oral surgeries and minor but invasive procedures like biopsies and colonoscopies.

What happens during anesthesia awareness?

The anesthesiologist administers two separate kinds of medications with general anesthesia. One of the medicines temporarily paralyzes most of the body's muscles and the other renders the patient unconscious. If, for whatever reason, the latter medication fails to take effect or isn't given, the patient is trapped is a waking nightmare of paralysis with full awareness — and often sensation.

A tragic case

After experiencing anesthesia awareness, patients may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and require mental health counseling to help them process the trauma. Simply expressing their recollections and having them validated by medical personnel can be helpful. But for one senior citizen in another state, the lack of that validation led to his committing suicide within two weeks of his surgery.

The 73-year-old patient, who retired from coal mining and was a Baptist preacher, had surgery on Jan. 19, 2006, to diagnose the source of his abdominal pain. His nurse anesthetist and anesthesiologist administered the paralytics that kept him from moving during the surgery. However, they neglected to also administer the drugs to induce a loss of consciousness.

Therefore, the patient experienced horrific agony as the surgeon cut into his flesh and abdominal organs. Sixteen minutes into the procedure, the error was discovered and the drugs were given to him. But nobody validated his memories of the procedure or the pain.

As a result, the traumatized patient believed he was being buried alive. He couldn't sleep or be left by himself. The little sleep he did get was interrupted by nightmares of his surgical horror. On Feb. 2, he ended his life with a single gunshot.

If you or a family member experienced anesthesia awareness, it may be possible to file a claim for damages and recoup your losses and damages, which can go a long way toward making you whole again.

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