Awake During Surgery
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Eight years ago what was supposed to be routine surgery left Donna Penner awake but in a drug-induced state of paralysis during her operation.
She still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
Even though she was given a general anaesthetic, she woke up during the operation. The now 53-year-old grandmother was unable to move or speak.
She told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman that when she initially woke up, she assumed her surgery at the rural Manitoba hospital was over.
“I could feel nurses scrubbing my abdomen. I thought, ‘Great it’s over.’ In reality they were prepping me for surgery. Then I heard surgeon speak. His words hit me hard. I heard him say ‘Scalpel please.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I thought, ‘no way’.”
She tried in vain to move to get the attention of the surgical team, but she had been put into a drug-induced state of paralysis.
“I felt like I was a prisoner in my own body. I felt like it was torture. It was excruciatingly painful, knowing that you can’t move. It felt like somebody was sitting on me. It was just horrific. I honestly did not think that I was going to live,” she says.
In the recovery room, she confronted the GP anaesthetist who worked on her.
“(The doctor) stood about six feet away from my bed. He wouldn’t come near . He shuffled papers. When I was done speaking. He wouldn’t look at me. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said ‘It happens sometimes,’ and walked out of the recovery room. I can’t tell you how much those words hurt.”
After the experience, Donna had nightmares and the shakes. Elevators, bright lights, wearing scarves or blouses a bit tight around the neck gave her flashbacks. She was triggered by having X-rays or MRIs.
She eventually went on medical leave from her job, and then, she began looking for help.
She found Dr. Eric Jacobsohn.
Jacobsohn is a Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Manitoba and a world-authority on what doctors call anesthesia awareness or waking up during surgery.
He confirmed that she had PTSD.
“She was a highly functioning normal, small-town lady leading a wonderful life, whose life now involves just absolute text book PTSD. She has all the symptoms. She has flashbacks. She is anxious. She wasn’t able to sleep. She has night terrors. She is now obviously distrustful of the health care system,” Dr. Jacobsohn told Dr. Goldman.
He also confirmed that Donna’s ordeal never should have happened.
“In the past, doctors chalked it up to some unknown factor that made the dose of anesthetic drugs insufficient to keep the patient asleep. But increasingly it has been accepted that recall during surgery is an untoward event. It should probably be a never event,” says Jacobsohn.
With Dr. Jacobsohn’s support, Donna Penner faced subsequent surgery. At his urging, she now tells her story to medical students in the hope they can learn from it.
Dr. Jacobsohn says she’s had a huge impact on everyone who hears her.
“Every year, many residents are in tears. Her story is so terrifying, so heart-breaking. They see what the event has done to her, what PTSD is, and how she was treated when she disclosed to the healthcare system that something had gone wrong.”
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