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Anesthesia Awareness Horror Stories: Awake During Surgery

Updated June 14, 2019 264.8k views20 items

We haven’t done a poll or anything, but we’re pretty sure that one of the biggest shared fears in the world is the possibility of waking up during surgery. The technical term for this is anesthesia awareness or intraoperative recall, and it happens to at least 1,000 patients a year in the U.S. alone. While many of the cases are benign, consisting of hazy flashbacks, up to 70 percent of patients who experience anesthesia awareness suffer from long-term psychological distress and those are the anesthesia awareness horror stories that we’ve listed here for you today.

It would be a delight if we could go through life never having to hear surgery horror stories - it's one of those experiences that really gives us the heebie jeebies. After researching intraoperative recall, we’ve come to the realization that anesthesia doesn’t always work and that we would rather never step foot in a hospital again if the possibility of waking up on an operating room table is anywhere near our cards.

Even after reading the stories of the men and women on this list, we can’t imagine what it must be like to be awake inside your own body, screaming without a voice. It’s a little too Harlan Ellison. If this list doesn’t freak you out and make you think twice about receiving a general anesthetic the next time you go under the knife, then you’re definitely way braver than us.
  • "People Were Tearing at Me"

    In 2004, a 60-year-old man checked in for open gastric bypass surgery and a gallbladder removal at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. In the postoperative room after the surgery, nurses asked the man whether he was in pain. “Not now,” he said, “but I was during surgery.”

    He reported “unimaginable pain” and “the sensation that people were tearing at me.” According to a clinical report, he heard voices around him and “wished he were dead,” but when he tried to alert the surgical team, his body did not respond to his brain’s commands.
  • "I Was Screaming but No One Could Hear Me"

    Carol Weihrer, an activist for anesthesia awareness, says that she was awake but paralyzed during eye surgery in 1998 and that she could tell her surgeon telling his trainee to "cut deeper into the eye." After the surgery she said that "I've had to sleep in a recliner for the last 16 years... If I lie flat, I get flashbacks of the operating table and I start violently thrashing."
  • "I Was Fighting for All I Had"

    In 2008, a woman woke during gallbladder surgery and realized that she was breathing through a tube and could feel the surgeon making an incision near her belly button. She said, “At that point, I was aware, I could not scream because of the breathing tube, all I could think of is I have got to move some way; I was fighting for all I had in my mind to move as they proceeded with the second incision up by the rib cage, there is no words to describe the pain.”
  • "I Could Smell the Bone as It Was Being Sawed Away"

    The last thing chef Peter Unruh said to his surgeon before surgery began was, "For God’s sake, make sure you knock me out because I can’t stand pain." His wish was their command, but after a minute he woke up on the table. "I could smell the bone as it was being sawed away, and felt the vibration as they bashed the replacement hip into my thigh," says Peter, "I was pretty surprised but I couldn’t feel any pain, so they’d obviously got the dosage of painkillers just right. I called out to the surgeon, “Er, excuse me but I’m awake.”