White Coat, Black Art

Dr. Goldman: Why Donna Penner inspires me

After meeting Donna Penner and hearing her story, White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman has some thoughts on why we need to listen to what she says.
Donna Penner, who woke up during surgery, shares her experience with medical students in Manitoba. (Brian Goldman )

By Dr. Brian Goldman 

This week's episode of White Coat, Black Art  gives a highly unusual take on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.  On past episodes, we've told stories of paramedics and other first responders who developed PTSD because of experiences they faced on the job - everything from the tragic circumstances in which patients are injured to finding themselves the target of a random act of violence.

Donna Penner's story is quite different.  Unlike the paramedic who is on the job and in control of her faculties, Donna found herself awake, yet largely unable to act because the drugs she was given rendered her mostly paralyzed, as the surgeon did his thing.  

"For anybody who wants to understand what PTSD is, Donna Penner represents exactly that," says Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, Professor of Anaesthesiology at the University of Manitoba, and a world authority on awareness during surgery.  

"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."

And, amidst the trauma of the experience of being wide awake and powerless during her own operation, Donna's resilience shines through.

Summoning up all of the will she could muster, Donna managed to move her foot - not once, not twice - but three times, all in an effort to tell the surgeon and the scrub nurses that she was awake.  

And now, eight years later, Donna's story has an ending that - while not storybook happy - is both empowering and inspiring. 

With Dr. Jacobsohn's encouragement, Donna tells her story to young doctors, and especially, to anesthesiologists in training.  Many of them listen to Donna's story with tears in their eyes.

I found it hard to listen to her story - in large part because I found it hard to believe that the people in whom she entrusted her well being in the operating room, were not paying attention to her. 

The only decent and right thing to do is pay attention now.