Awake and Under the Knife

8/3/2008 ST. LOUIS Whether you'll wake up after surgery is one of the biggest fears, but some people wake up during surgery. It's called anesthesia awareness and when it happens in the operating room, patients can be affected for life.

Carol Weihrer remembers the beginning of her nightmare and she remembers so much more. "I knew that I was in trouble," Weihrer told Ivanhoe. "I knew that I couldn't move. I knew that I was screaming inside my head, but nothing was coming out of my mouth." About an hour after surgeons started removing her diseased right eye, Weihrer woke up, but no one in the operating room knew it. "The next thing I heard was my surgeon saying, 'Cut deeper, pull harder,'" Weihrer recalls.

Anesthesia awareness happens when the medications used to paralyze the patient on the operating table work, but the other medications don't. During the five-and-a-half hour surgery, carol was awake from 40 minutes to two-and-a-half hours, unable to move, unable to scream, but she could feel everything! "To this day, I'm haunted by the fact that I figured, 'Well, I'm going to hell. I'm in hell and it's okay, I just want to be off that table,'" Weihrer says. After surgery -- when she could finally speak -- no one wanted to listen. "I was trying to crawl off the gurney -- literally -- and screaming, 'I was awake! I was awake, while you took my eye out,'" Weihrer recalls.

Anesthesia awareness happens about a hundred times a day. That's about 30,000 Americans each year who feel the pain vividly. Women and slimmer patients report more awareness, but why it happens varies. "Sometimes, it's caused by drugs not being given; sometimes by the wrong drug being given; sometimes, by an under dosing of drugs being given; but sometimes, nobody knows why it happens," Michael Avidan, M.D., an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Washington University in St. Louis told Ivanhoe.

Carol says her anesthesiologist was running late. "Turns out, he never checked his equipment. There was nothing in the machine," Weihrer says. Carol believes special brain-wave monitors are the best way to prevent it, but new research shows they may not be completely accurate.

"This brain monitor was not 100-percent reliable in determining when a patient was deeply anesthetized, so several of the cases of anesthesia awareness occurred when this monitor indicated that anesthesia awareness would not occur," Adam Searleman, Ph.D., of Washington University in St. Louis, told Ivanhoe.

Eleven years after her surgery, Weihrer still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from her surgery. "I cannot sleep in a bed," she says. "I sleep in a recliner for the last 10 years because I cannot face lying in the position of my surgery."

Kathy Labrie also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after waking up during surgery for a deviated septum. "I remember it felt like grinding and pushing and just a really bad pain in my nose, the right side of my face," Labri told Ivanhoe. Pain so excruciating, she thought she was dead. "I kept thinking, if this is the way that a person dies, this is hell. You know, why aren't they helping me, and it just kept going on and I couldn't do anything at all. I could do nothing at all about it. I just … I'm sorry," Labri says. Kathy believes she survived for a reason. "Every day, I live in hell. I live in hell, and I say that God must have kept me alive. He must have given me a mission and I'm hoping that this, by you being here and talking to me, that this is the mission," Labri says.

Weihrer founded the Anesthesia Awareness Campaign, Inc., a non-profit patient advocacy organization that is working to make brain monitors mandatory for all surgeries. Each monitor costs $5,000.

Catherine Lake


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