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Like A Lamb To The Slaughter: Anesthesia Awareness

Going under the knife is often cited as one of the most chilling experiences that a person can go through. At least, it would be if you were awake during the invasive procedure. With the use of anesthetics being accepted practice for a wide variety of types of surgery, from the external to the invasive, most people are calmly asleep while being cut open. However, there are those rare times when the general anesthetic isn’t powerful or doesn’t last long enough for the doctors to complete the surgery before the patient becomes wide awake and fully aware of what is going on. This condition, anesthesia awareness, is more common than one would initially assume.

Take a moment and assume that there are eight million people being operated on during any given year. Out of those eight million, anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 will likely undergo the traumatic experience of waking up during their own surgery, experiencing the horror of anesthesia awareness for as long as the procedure is being conducted. Anywhere from 30 to 50% of those will actually experience symptoms similar to extreme anxiety, typically accompanied by acutely feeling anything and everything that the doctor actually does to the body. In one particularly harrowing case, the patient actually felt the pain of a high-powered bone saw being used to clear a path through his sternum and into his heart cavity. For many, the stress of such an experience can have drastic effects on their mental health, with some survivors being driven to attempt suicide because of it.

The possible causes for anesthesia awareness can usually be linked to the nature of the medical profession and the laws around it. Excessive anesthetics may have the result of killing a person, while too little can become a problem as the person is liable to wake up in the middle of a procedure. That, along with factors such as metabolism and time, can make computing the amount of anesthetic necessary for a surgery to be pulled off without a hitch a problem. Both too much and too little can also lead a doctor or hospital straight into a nasty malpractice suit, with settlement being the most common way of ending it. While most surgeries are completed with the correct amount of anesthetic, the nature of human error will make sure that there will always be a few where the amount was not enough.

Being aware during the procedure is compounded further by the other drugs used on a person undergoing any sort of surgery. There are the drugs used to keep the patient’s body from moving and disrupting the procedure, as even when asleep, the body can move as a reaction to pain. These drugs keep a person from making any vocal attempts to inform the doctors that they’re awake, not to mention prevent any movements to signal that he’s aware of what’s going on and needs to be put out again. Drugs are also used to keep the eyelids shut and prevent the production of tears, so crying because of the pain is also not an option.

Add to that the levels of stress that a person experiencing anesthesia awareness must feel and the potential damage to a person’s mental health is extremely high. Post-traumatic stress disorder is practically universal among people who have experienced anesthesia awareness, with a wide range of other mental disorders usually following suit. Suicide cases due to the mental damage caused by this problem are not common, but they are a viable end result of leaving the psychological trauma untreated.

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