Anesthesia Awareness—How Likely Is This Horrifying Surgical Complication?

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surgical roomThe idea of being awake but paralyzed during a surgery—unable to talk or scream, but feeling the entire procedure—sounds like something out of a horror film. Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens to an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Americans per year. Known as anesthesia awareness, this type of horrifying mistake can be prevented with the use of proper anesthesia techniques or special monitoring equipment.

What Is Anesthesia Awareness?

Patients who have document experiences with anesthesia awareness describe their surgeries as terrifying ordeals which leave lasting psychological scars.

Before surgery, patients are often given paralyzing drugs which prevent involuntary muscle movements during the procedure. Because of these drugs, the patient is unable to move or speak, even if the general anesthesia wears off or is ineffective.

Some patients who experience anesthesia awareness do not feel pain, but feel other sensations like pulling or cutting. They may hear the voices of the people in the room, and are often able to remember what song was playing or parts of conversation.

While some patients write these memories off as dreams, for others the memories are inescapable. In one shocking lawsuit, a Baptist minister in North Carolina committed suicide after he was unable to stop reliving abdominal surgery performed without anesthetics. While the paralyzing drugs were administered, the general anesthesia was not, and the minister was awake and aware of every cut for 16 minutes of the surgery.

Like the minister, many people who experience anesthesia awareness suffer severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and may be tormented by dreams or doubts about whether or not their memories are real. Doctors often do not believe patients when they say that they remember parts of the surgery, which may lead that patient to stay silent about their suffering. As a result, many victims of this type of malpractice file lawsuits in order to have their memories validated and their experiences vindicated.

Can Anesthesia Awareness Be Prevented?

A patient who is sedated and paralyzed cannot communicate their pain and distress to the surgeons. Accordingly, it is up to the anesthesiologist and other doctors in the room to carefully monitor patients for signs of awareness, like increased heart rate or blood pressure, sweating, pupil dilation, or tears in the patient’s eyes.

Unfortunately, many anesthesiologists fail to direct their full time and attention to a patient during the entire surgery. When anesthesia wears off too early, or doesn’t take full effect, the signs of distress can go unnoticed in a busy operating room.

To prevent anesthesia awareness, many advocates want hospitals to begin using a bispectral index monitor, which can alert doctors to awareness. These monitors are worn on a patient’s forehead, and convert the amount of brain waves detected to a number between 0 and 100. During general anesthesia, the monitor should report that the patient has a number between 40 and 60.

Though these monitors were approved by the FDA in 1996, they are rarely used. Many operating rooms do not even have this equipment, and anesthesiologists in general are hesitant to use them because they believe that vigilantly monitoring the patient should be enough.

When vigilance is not enough, and the negligence of an anesthesiologist leads to anesthesia awareness, victims have the right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit for their pain and suffering. If you or a loved one believes that you are the victim of anesthesia awareness, the medical and legal team at the Trial Law Offices of Bradley I. Kramer, M.D., Esq., are here to help.

To speak with a knowledgeable Los Angeles medical malpractice attorney, contact Bradley I. Kramer today by calling (310) 289-2600 or use our online case evaluation form to have your claim reviewed for free.

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