The Current

'I went into distress': patient wakes up during surgery

Patients waking up during surgery reportedly happens during one out of every 1,000 surgeries.
While waking during surgery is not common, professor of anesthesiology Dr. Eric Jacobsohn says it needs to be taken seriously. (Jean-Sebastien EvrardAFP/Getty Images)

*Warning: Details in this story may make some listeners uncomfortable.

It's a nightmare portrayed in movies — being conscious and aware during a surgery — but being unable to alert the doctors and nurses around you.

Donna Penner can tell you it does happen.

I was feeling the pain as he made the incision and I was panicking on the inside.- Donna Penner

In 2008, Penner went in for surgery in a rural Manitoba hospital and she's still reeling from what she experienced in the operating room.

"I heard the surgeon speak and his words stopped me cold, and I heard him say, 'Scalpel please.'"

She realized something was wrong and could feel the first incision but couldn't say anything.

"I went into distress. Actually, my heart rate went through the roof because I was feeling the pain as he made the incision and I was panicking on the inside," Penner tells The Current's Friday host Duncan McCue. 
Lawyer Stephen MacDonald says his client still suffers after waking during surgery. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Penner explains she tried to cry or scream but couldn't do anything. Two weeks after her haunting experience, she was diagnosed with PTSD. 

"The nightmares are still there. My emotions when I crash, they are just out of control. I cry and I cry and I cry," Penner says.

Lynn Hillis had a similarly harrowing experience during a cancer-related hysterectomy surgery, paralyzed and unable to alert surgeons. 

"It's probably one of the worst sorts of things you can imagine anyone going through," Hillis's lawyer Stephen MacDonald tells McCue.

A couple of thousand people may have had an episode of anesthetic awareness.- Dr. Eric Jacobsohn,

Earlier this month, an Ontario judge ruled in favour of Hillis suing her anesthesiologist. It's believed to be the first such malpractice ruling in Canada.

The chance of waking during surgery is extremely small, says Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, professor at the department of anesthesia, at the University of Manitoba, but "it's devastating when it happens."

It's unclear how often this occurs, but Jacobsohn tells McCue it's about one in 1,000 surgeries — "that means probably a couple of thousand people may have had an episode of anesthetic awareness."

"People wake up because the anesthetic dosing for that patient at that time is too little," he explains attributing this to technical factors like failure of the anesthetic machine or gas running out on the anesthetic machine.

RelatedDr. Goldman: Why Donna Penner inspires me

About 50 per cent of patients who wake during surgery suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Jacobsohn.

"The common denominator is in those patients they've all had a paralytic drug ... in particularly for abdominal surgery, it makes the muscle relax so it's easier to operate," he explains, adding if patients woke up and weren't paralyzed they would obviously move and the anesthesiologist would know.

"So the use of neuromuscular blocking drugs is a huge, huge risk factor."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal and Ines Colabrese.