Going in for surgery is pretty stressful to begin with, now imagine going through the surgery completely aware of everything going on around you, and aware of the pain. This is the reality for 1 or 2 people out of every thousand who under go general anesthesia.
Carol Weihrer was under going surgery to have her right eye removed. During the surgery she woke up to hear disco music playing and heard the doctor say, “cut deeper, pull harder.”
Weihrer desperately wanted and tried to scream out for help or move a finger or limb to alert doctors and nurses to what was going on, but was unable due to the muscle relaxants she was given to prevent and control her movement.
“I was doing a combination of praying and pleading and cursing and screaming, and trying anything I could do but I knew that there was nothing that was working,” said Weihrer, of Reston, Virginia.
Weihrer is one of the unlucky few that have experienced anesthesia awareness. According to the Mayo Clinic normally a patient does not remember anything about surgery that involves general anesthesia, about one or two people in every 1,000 may wake up during general anesthesia. Most of these cases involve the person being aware of the surrounding environment, but some experience severe pain and go on to have psychological problems.
In Weihrer’s case the surgical tools did not cause her pain and all she felt was pressure but the injections of a paralytic drug during the operation “felt like ignited fuel,” she said. “I thought, well, maybe I’ve been wrong about my life, and I’m in hell,” she said.
The surgery lasted five and a half hours and some time during the surgery Weiher finally either fell unconscious or passed out. When she finally awoke she began to scream.
“All I could say to anyone was, ‘I was awake! I was awake!’ ” she said.
The use of general anesthesia is normally safe and produces a state of sedation that doesn’t break in the middle of a procedure, doctors say. The patient and anesthesiologist collect as much medical history as possible beforehand, including alcohol and drug habits, to help determine the most appropriate anesthetic.
Many think of general anesthesia as “falling asleep” but it is nothing like falling asleep or “taking a nap”. The use of anesthesia is a drug induced coma. During sleep, the brain is in its most active state; anesthesia, on the other hand, depresses central nervous system activity. On the operating table, your brain is less active and consumes less oxygen — a state of unconsciousness nothing like normal sleep.
Doctors do not know exactly how general anesthesia produces this effect. It is clear that anesthetic drugs interfere with the transmission of chemicals in the brain across the membranes, or walls, of cells. But the mechanism is the subject of ongoing research, Dr. Alexander Hannenberg, anesthesiologist in Newton, Massachusetts, and president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
Patients who remember falling unconscious under the anesthesia generally have a pleasant experience of it, Hannenberg said, and the period of “waking up” is also a relaxed state, Hannenberg said.
Anesthesia awareness may relate to human error or equipment failure in delivering the anesthetic, Hannenberg said.
The experience for Weihrer was so traumatic that she developed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Weihrer later had to under-go another surgery on her remaining eye and also a hysterectomy, and the experiences were terrifying. She is still taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her anesthesia awareness experience.