It may sound like the stuff of nightmares and horror films, but this can actually happen. The term Anesthesia Awareness refers to the rare but horrifying state in which patients can find themselves awake while under the knife. We expect to be in safe hands when undergoing surgery, but mistakes can happen and when they do, some unfortunate patients can find themselves spectators at their own operations! This disturbing phenomenon has unsurprisingly caused post-traumatic stress in some patients as they often find themselves reliving those terrifying moments months and even years after their surgery.
In some instances, being awake during surgery can be perfectly normal (and often necessary). In brain surgery, for instance, it can be beneficial for the patient to be conscious and be able to respond so that surgeons can monitor their changes in real time and help them locate where a tumor might lie in the brain. While this may sound pretty gruesome, there are no nerve endings in the brain, so even without anesthetic, patients would not feel pain as a direct result of having their brain prodded.
The patients on this list, on the other hand, experienced pain like no other when they found themselves waking up in the middle of under-the-knife surgery. Many who experience anesthesia awareness have likened it to feeling as if they are buried alive since they become awake but find themselves paralyzed and unable to vocalize their concern to anyone. Here are 15 truly chilling stories of people waking up in the middle of their own surgery…
15. Awake During Eye Removal Surgery
As well as a dose of anesthetic, a muscle relaxant is also administered to patients before they undergo surgery. Unfortunately for people like Carol Weiher, the strong effects of the muscle relaxant can leave patients feeling imprisoned in their own bodies and unable to signal to the surgeons that something is not right. When the anesthetic began to wear off for Weiher, doctors were in the process of removing her eye – and she had no way of telling them.
While on the operating table in 1998 to have her right eye surgically removed, Carol Weiher describes waking up only to hear one of the surgeons say “Cut deeper, pull harder”. Weiher only felt intense pressure, not pain, from having her eye removed. But the injection of a paralytic drug given to her halfway through the operation stabbed Weiher like “ignited fuel”. She described feeling such intense pain that she believed she may have died and gone to hell.
14. ‘I Could Smell The Bone’ In Hip Replacement Surgery
A hip replacement is a fairly routine procedure and not an operation that could be considered life or death in the way that heart or brain surgery has the potential to be. For Peter Unruh, however, what seemed like a straightforward operation to the surgeons working on his hip was more like a real-life horror movie for the man himself. Unruh could not feel any pain, but the sensations he felt as they began drilling into his hip bone left him deeply disturbed.
Unruh recalled being roused awake on the operating table and at that point in his operation, he could actually “smell the bone as it was being sawed away.” Gruesome. If smelling (not to mention hearing) your own bone being drilled away at wasn’t nightmarish enough, Peter also describes the unsettling sensation of feeling vibrations as surgeons were in the process of bashing the replacement hip into his thigh.
13. Awake During a Tooth Extraction
If you’re not already cringing at this one, then you may as well be a robot! It’s never pleasant to visit the dentist’s office – even when we’re only there for a routine check-up and our worst fear at the dentist is surely having a tooth removed. Having a tooth extracted is bad enough when we have anesthetic, so the notion of undergoing this without any painkillers whatsoever? Dear Lord in Heaven….
This is the nightmare Diane Parr experienced when she went for a routine tooth extraction. Parr remembered feeling relaxed as the anesthetic set in, but when she woke up again, the surgeon was leaning over her and pushing down on her body to get her tooth yanked out. Parr explains “It felt like my tooth was coming out of my foot, not my mouth.” to make matters worse, Parr’s tooth had cracked and was coming out in fragments, so the surgeon proceeded to cut into her gum line with a scalpel. At that point, Parr passed out. Unsurprisingly, the ordeal has left Diane with lasting psychological harm.
12. Conscious During Leg Surgery
When one patient in the UK tried desperately to alert surgeons to the fact that he was conscious during leg surgery by wiggling his toes, he heard a nurse being told to ignore it as it was probably just his ‘reflexes’. All the while, the poor man had no choice but to lie in agony as the surgeons began operating on his leg. This operation involved the man’s leg being sliced open and drilling into the bone to make four holes.
Utterly horrified, the patient thought his best chance to make the surgeons stop operating and realize he was conscious was to stop breathing. Unfortunately, this didn’t work, since his ventilator began breathing for him and he had no choice but to endure hours of searing pain. The patient later won a lawsuit against the hospital that operated on him, but no amount of compensation can surely lessen an experience as hellish as this.
11. ‘Worst Pain Ever Felt’ During a C-section
Giving birth is already an incredibly frightening time for a mother-to-be and when faced with the prospect of giving birth by caesarean section, this must up the ante for expectant mothers with a fear of going under the knife. At the very least, we know (and hope) that we’re in good hands with surgeons and that our operation will go according to plan. Not for a physical therapist, Becky Evans, who began to wake up during a C-section for the birth of her first child.
In her profession as a physical therapist, Evans often asked her patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10. So when Evans felt the scalpel blade pierce into her abdomen and couldn’t alert the surgeons, all she could do was repeatedly scream in her head “This is a 10!” She describes the agonizing pain and nightmare she endured throughout – what should have been – a joyous first birth “I had tears streaming down my face. I remember the intense burn as he was pulled out of me.” Disturbing AF.
10. During Gallbladder Surgery
In the middle of her gallbladder operation in 2008, one woman woke up only to realize that she still had a breathing tube in her throat and that she could hear the surgeons around her having a conversation about the procedure. Next thing she knew, the surgeon began to make an incision near her belly button so she tried desperately to get the attention of the surgeons and doctors surrounding her.
Unfortunately, her breathing tube made it impossible to speak and while she tried everything in her power to alert someone to her conscious state, the surgeons had moved on to the second incision, making a cut near her rib cage. After a long while, the medical staff became aware that something wasn’t right and administered a high-level dose of drugs to put her under for the rest of the operation. By this point, the poor patient had already been awake for a total of three incisions in her body.
9. ‘Like A Blowtorch To My Stomach’
For Jeanette Magdelene, the only way to describe being awake to feel a scalpel knife slice into her body was as if “someone took a blowtorch and stuck it on the right side of my stomach.” Like a nightmare come true, Magdelene was unable to let any of the surgeons know she was awake to feel this searing pain. As many survivors of anesthesia awareness can relate, she later described feeling as if she was ‘buried alive’ in herself, with no-one able to hear her screams.
Magdelene describes her terrifying, isolating ordeal as she lay helpless while doctors sliced her open “I couldn’t move anything. I was buried alive inside myself. Frozen from head to toe.” Understandably, a strong dose of muscle relaxant is needed to prevent patient’s from twitching during surgery and potentially sabotaging a delicate operation, but this frightening phenomenon makes you wonder whether the muscles are a little too relaxed.
8. Driven To Suicide From Psychological Distress
Those who survive the horrors of anesthesia awareness and live to tell the tale are usually able to work out their post-traumatic stress through counseling. Sadly, for others, the experience can be too much to bear. This was tragically the case for Sherman Sizemore, who ended his life just weeks after waking up during surgery in 2006. In the days that followed his botched operation, Sizemore was plagued by nightmares and complained that people were trying to ‘bury him alive’.
In light of this tragic outcome, is enough being done to ensure fewer patients fall victim to anesthesia awareness? Apparently so. Doctors at the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston are proposing the use of brain monitors during surgery. Dr. John Zerwas at the hospital has said that monitors would allow surgeons to be alerted to changes in brain activity, prompting them to increase the anesthesia dosage – which could eradicate the chance for human error.
7. Suffered A Cardiac Arrest
Finding yourself awake with a front row seat to your own operation is bound to be a shocking experience for any human being, so it’s little wonder that this phenomenon can bring on a heart attack in some patients. This was the case for June Carson who became so distressed during her ordeal that she went into cardiac arrest after enduring 15 minutes of silent agony.
Mrs. Carson recalls the chilling moment when it dawned on her that she was about to feel pain like no other. A few minutes after being given the anesthetic, June could hear the surgeons talking and realized straight away that her stomach was about to be sliced open “My mind was racing. I thought I would die immediately. I felt as if I was being tortured.” June’s heart soon stopped due to the shock of it all but was thankfully kick-started again with an adrenaline injection.
6. Awoke During Open Gastric Bypass Surgery
When a 60-year-old man arrived at his local medical center for open gastric bypass surgery, he can’t have possibly imagined what he would have to endure that day. According to a medical journal on the subject of anesthesia, the patient was fairly reliant on painkillers and suffered from hypotension – both of which are known to increase the risk of awareness. His anesthesiologist was confident, however, since he was using a Bispectral index monitor during the surgery.
A Bispectral index or BIS monitor should have been able to give the gentleman’s surgeon a close reading of his patient’s consciousness levels. (100 being fully awake and 40-60 being under and unaware). Unfortunately, the reading indicated by the monitor was inaccurate and the patient felt everything. The elderly gentleman reported feeling as if people were tearing at him and that he “wished he were dead”. The BIS monitor has since received wide criticism among the medical community and is in no way seen as a guaranteed way of measuring a patient’s awareness levels.
5. ‘White-Hot Searing Pain’ During A Colon Removal
During a 7-hour operation to have her colon removed, Juliette Wills had her worst fears realized when she woke up too early from the anesthetic. Wills – a writer from Brighton, England – had previously gone under the knife due to a bowel condition and was expecting to come round peacefully from the operation with her family by her side. The voices she heard when she woke prematurely from surgery, however, were not her family – they were her surgeons.
The next thing Juliette knew, she had the sensation of being suffocated from her breathing tubes before experiencing inexplicable pain “I was in white-hot searing pain. It felt like my torso was on fire.” Thankfully, one of the nurses noticed her high heart rate and administered another epidural to send her back to sleep. This waking moment during surgery might have been brief, but the nightmares still haunt Wills to this day -“My husband says I call out ‘help me’ in the night.”
4. Had An Out-Of-Body Experience
Out-of-body experiences are not unlike near-death experiences in the sense that you feel separated from your physical self. The cliché of having your entire life flash before you is not true for everyone. Sometimes, it can feel like your soul is leaving your body and observing your surroundings and this can be brought on by powerful sleep-inducing drugs, like the ones administered during surgery.
This was true for one young woman, who felt herself float up from her body during her own nose job operation. Apparently, she saw her body on the operating table and watched as the medical staff operated on her. The patient reported feeling no pain at any point during the operation, but her surreal experience is thought to be down t the fact that an extra hit of sleep-inducing drugs was given to her on top of her anesthetic because doctors noticed slight twitching. In this brief moment of consciousness (and with such a powerful dosage), it’s possible that extreme hallucinations can occur. This poor woman was quite literally watching her own operation. Yikes!
3. Wanting To Scream During Appendix Removal
Going in to have your appendix removed is a frightening prospect in itself since there is a chance the appendix can burst once it has become inflamed – and if this happens, it can become life-threatening. Add anesthesia awareness into the mix and this was the unthinkable nightmare faced by Alexandra Bythell from the UK, who woke to the sound of surgeons chatting about making the first incision into her body.
The minute Bythell realized what she was hearing, she wanted to scream but was rendered mute by the oxygen tubes in her throat. She couldn’t even signal her distress with her eyes since her eyelids had been taped shut beforehand. Like many patients on this list, Bythell was effectively a prisoner in her own body. Luckily, the surgical staff soon became aware and administered some morphine, but those frightening few minutes have had a detrimental effect on her well-being.
2. Woke Up Twice Under The Knife
To experience anesthesia awareness not once but twice during your lifetime is pretty unfortunate, especially considering how rarely it occurs in patients. One very unlucky woman shared her experience of waking up twice while under the knife on a forum dedicated to survivors of anesthesia awareness. The first incident occurred when she was just 3, but she felt no pain and the doctors were quick to notice and increase her dosage in time.
The second incident, however, was the most frightening and occurred at 16 years old. The young woman was receiving corrective treatment for some breathing problems she had before quickly realizing that she was still in the operating theater. She felt the surgeons cut into her and the pain was so agonizing, she fell in and out of consciousness for the duration of the operation. Experiencing one incident of anesthesia awareness can be devastating enough for the patient, but to go through this twice? Man alive…
1. Lifelong Trauma From Childhood Surgery
Many of us have some sort of phobia that has its links to childhood trauma, but very few of us have one as severe as this poor woman. At the age of just 4 years old in the 1960’s, Linda Campbell was rushed to hospital with a ruptured appendix. Unfortunately for Linda, appendix removals in the ‘60’s were a tad gorier compared to modern procedures – leaving young Linda with more than just large physical scars.
Compared with the minute incisions in today’s appendix removals, the operation to remove the appendix slowly infecting Linda’s insides was very bloody and violent and left the poor girl with disturbing flashbacks that continued to plague her in adulthood. A hypnotherapy session years later revealed that she had in fact been awake throughout the operation, which explains her erratic behavior when she came home from the hospital. Once a calm and quiet girl, Linda soon flew into violent tantrums, experienced uncontrollable episodes of vomiting and had countless nightmares about people being cut open. Horrifying stuff.
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