General anesthesia does more than just put a patient to sleep. The cocktail of drugs has five components, which are:
- Hypnosis — to render a patient unconscious
- Amnesia — to erase the patient’s memory of the surgical event
- Analgesic — to block the patient from feeling pain
- Paralysis — to keep a patient still so the surgeon can perform delicate tasks
- Automatic reflex control — to prevent such automatic movements as coughing, hiccupping, swallowing or deep breathing that can interfere with surgery
Without anesthesia, many surgeries would be too painful and terrifying for a patient to endure. Yet, some patients have suddenly awakened to discover they are still on the operating table.
Carol Weihrer was one of the first to speak about the nightmare of anesthesia awareness. Ms. Weihrer was put under general anesthesia so surgeons could remove her diseased eye. She woke up about an hour into the surgery. She could hear and feel everything. She heard one doctor instruct the other to “cut deeper” and “pull harder.” She felt the surgeon pulling on her eye. She saw everything go black the moment her eye was removed. She tried to scream or alert the medical team with a twitch of a finger or toe, but her body remained paralyzed. At one point, a surgeon noticed her vitals escalating and realized Ms. Weihrer was awake. However, the anesthesiologist merely pumped a burning fluid into her body that did not put her back under.
Ms. Weihrer has continued to relive the nightmare for more than a decade. In addition to the failure of the analgesic and the hypnosis aspects of the anesthesia, the amnesia portion also did not work.
Surprisingly, Ms. Weihrer is not alone. Approximately 30,000 patients a year experience anesthesia awareness. An inexpensive device called a brain-wave system may help anesthesiologists detect a patient’s awareness. In addition, researchers have also noted the need for doctors to follow a regimented protocol for maintaining patients’ sleep state.
Consult with a San Diego County medical malpractice lawyer if you experienced anesthesia awareness.