Anesthesia awareness medical malpractice lawsuits

Donald Saiontz

By Donald Saiontz
Posted April 15, 2007


Anesthesia awareness is the unthinkable phenomenon of being awake during surgery, yet unable to move, speak or communicate to doctors that pain or other sensations are being felt. It is often cause by an anesthesia mistake which could have been prevented either through proper use of medical care or use of a special monitor.

>>INFORMATION: Anesthesia awareness medical malpractice

Last week the Associated Press reported that a lawsuit was filed after a 73 year old Baptist minister and retired coal miner experienced anesthesia awareness during surgery on his abdomen. As a result of a medical mistake, he was not given general anesthesia until 16 minutes after the first cut. However, he was unable to move or cry out in pain as a result of paralyzing drugs which were given before the surgery to prevent involuntary muscle movement during the proceedure.

Following surgery, the patient reported feeling excruciating pain which left him unable to sleep, afraid of being alone, experiencing nightmares and thinking that people were trying to bury him alive. Approximately two weeks after the surgery he committed suicide by shooting himself.

Many people who experience anesthesia awareness suffer severe post traumatic stress after the surgery, and are often tormented by doubts that the memories are not real. Physicians do not always believe the recollections, and in some cases patients do not even tell their doctors or family what they experienced.

In an interview with the Associated Press, the president of the Anesthesia Awareness Campaign indicated that after experiencing anesthesia awareness, many people pursue lawsuits because they want to be acknowledged, and do not want to be told it did not happen or that it was a dream. Carol Weiher founded the Anesthesia Awareness Campaign after her anesthesia failed during an eye operation in 1998. She received a settlement after filing an anesthesia malpractice lawsuit.


Even though individuals may not be able to directly signal their pain and distress, careful observation and monitoring by the physician should be able to pick up on signs of awareness, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilation of the pupils, sweating and formation of tears. Unfortunately, many anesthesiologists fail to give their full time and attention

Many believe that the risk of anesthesia awareness could be further reduced or even eliminated by careful monitoring and use of a device known as a bispectral index monitor (BIS monitor). The monitor works by placing a plastic sensor on the patients forehead which sends brain waves to a unit which converts them to a number between zero and 100. During general anesthesia, a patient should be kept in the range of 40 to 60.

These monitors were approved by the FDA in 1996, yet they are only used on about 12% of patients who receive general anesthesia and they are not even present in approximately 60% of all operating rooms. Many anesthesiologists do not believe the monitors are necessary since vigilance in monitoring the patient should be sufficient. Victims of anesthesia awareness often disagree.


The medical malpractice lawyers at Saiontz & Kirk investigate potential claims for medical mistakes nationwide. If you, a friend or family member believe you may be the victim of an anesthesia mistake or medical error, request a free malpractice consultation.

16 Comments • Add Your Comments

  • Linda Fernandes says:

    I have been a CRNA for 30 yrs. To my knowledge none of my pts. have had anes. awareness! When reporting cases of anes. awareness*abd. pt.*was it an emergency case? was the bowel perforated? was the pt. septic?*all of these and more reasons would establish why the pt. had little anes in the first part of the surgery. Keeping the pt. alive is the first and foremost goal of of very anes. care provider. Did the eye pt. have a block with sedation*pain is from an inadequate block by the surgeon?*More facts should be reported not only the pt. had awareness. Anesthesia care providers DO NOT intentionally make sure that their pt.s do not have adequate anesthesia! For those who have awareness, there is ALWAYS more to the case than what is presented to the public.

    Posted on March 16, 2008 at 5:57 pm

  • Shane says:


    My mother has went through this and until you have or someone in your family has you need to be compassionate. I see you just follow the party lines of “It can’t be OUR Fault.” WHen you read medical records and see that mistakes are make and they contiue the surgery after someone has been bucking and even listed as crying…then you can talk. Until then you need to have compassion. I am sure glad in my surgeries I have had better CRNA’s than you, who have all told me, the only reason it happens, is because the Anesthiaologist doesn’t perform their job properly.

    Posted on August 6, 2008 at 12:51 pm

  • steve says:

    I had a lipoma in the front of my neck about the size of a plum. I went into surgery 3 days ago to have it removed. I’m not someone who has a story of not being able to communicate the fact that I was awake during the procedure. Once I was in the recovery room I got up to use the bathroom and was quite surprised to see a small cut in between my eyes as well as a small abrasion on my forehead near my hairline. I asked the nearest nurse what had happened to me. She summoned the anesthesiologist nurse that had “taken care of me”. She started off by telling me how stong I am. The cuts I had on my face came from her fingernails when she was trying to keep me from getting off the table. She said my breathing at one point became somewhat shallow and she grabbed my chin to open up my airway. At that moment I woke up and tried to get up and yelled at them to get off me. During that struggle I recieved the cuts to my face. She also told me I had told her to stop talking to me like im a 12 year old. Clearly I wasn’t to pleased to be waking up in a room full of strangers with masks on that were cutting my neck open! I’m thinking someone should be losing their job.

    Posted on October 25, 2008 at 7:10 pm

  • Carol Weihrer says:

    As President of the Anesthesia Awareness Campaign, Inc.,, I urge all victims of anesthesia awareness to contact this Campaign in addition to anyone else.

    And I would submit that the 30-year CRNA (or anesthesiologist) just doesn’t know who was left awake…….

    Carol Weihrer

    Posted on January 8, 2009 at 10:45 am

  • Anna says:

    I had a total right hip arthoplasty on Monday, July 19, 2010. When I woke up in recovery I felt something was wrong, but I didn’t say anything. Later that day the physicians assistant asked me if I remembered telling her that It hurt, or words to that effect. I am slowly getting flashes of my surgery, and I feel emotionally vulnerable (EXTREMELY). It was obvious to me and is becoming more clear daily that I woke up when the surgeon was operating on me. I am scared to death, and quite apprehensive about what to say or do next.

    Posted on July 27, 2010 at 11:37 pm

  • Pat says:

    I was awake during long segments of open heart surgery. The pain I experienced was beyond anything words can describe. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, see a therapist weekly and am taking Zoloft and Welbutrin for depression, Ambien to sleep and Xanax for anxiety, which, at times, is extreme. Last week I had a mole removed from my upper arm. Because I’m on a blood thinner the doctor cauterized my arm to stop the bleeding. The minute I smelled my burning flesh I was back in the operating room, in severe pain, and unable to communicate with anyone. I got hysterical in the dermatologist’s exam room and had to run out, half naked, into the hall to get away from the smell. The pain I experienced during the heart surgery was so horrendous I tried to “kill myself” by not breathing, but then remembered that there was a breathing tube down my throat. In my head I kept screaming “SEE ME! LOOK AT ME!” and no one did. The heart surgeon would never speak to me about this experience. The anesthesialogist did come to my room three days after surgery and tell me everything went well. I couldn’t believe this!!! I did have a psych. eval. while in the hospital but the reports are very nebulous. I have copies of all medical records pertaining to this surgery and chronological anecdotal records of my hourly and daily experiences, both pre and post op.

    Posted on April 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm

  • victoria says:

    What is the main problem anesthesologist face?

    Posted on May 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm

  • Richard says:

    Hi. I have had this experience happen to me. I am told that it happened because I am on methadone and have a higher tolerance for anesthesia. This happened in September of 2010. I am very afraid to talk about it and still believe that people are following me everywhere I go. I just don’t know where to go or who to talk to. I need to get this off my chest but cant. Any advice? I am now able to talk about it easier than before. I remember what some of the people were talking about while this happened. I have hospital records and there is a statement on there from the anesthesiologist saying that he is very sorry and he should have payed more attention to my methadone dose that I was on at the time. I know that it can happen and that there is nothing fake about it. It was not a dream. Very painful and to the point of blacking out when I couldn’t move made me feel like pins and needles were coming out of my feet and hands and so much panic. like the worst panic attack i could ever imagine with unbelievable pain at the same time. Its no joke. I am afraid of even having a cold now. I think about it getting worse and turning to something i will need surgery for. I would rather die than have another surgery. I don’t know what to do anymore!

    Posted on June 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm

  • Rebecca says:

    A few months back my baby boy was delivered via emergency c-section. While my abdomen was being prepped for the surgery, I told everyone that I could feel it. I told them that I could feel sensations, the coldness of the prep. They ignored me and cut me open anyway. When the Doc made the first cut I screamed “I can feel that! Oh God, I can feel everything you are doing!” To make a long story short, I felt the entire surgery. My mother and my husband were not allowed into the OR so I was forced to cope with pain all alone. Afterwards for about two weeks, I would have nightmares in which I would relive the whole experience. I had pain at my incision sight which made the nightmares that much more real. It was the most awe fuel experience of my life.

    Posted on February 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm

  • Claud says:

    I had surgery and I was treated unfair because they told me
    That I have mrsa I never was treated for that I do not know what that is they gave me a stronger anesthesia for something I do not have and told me that it can hurt my kindeys I had it on the 9/4/2014 and all I do is sleep sleep

    Posted on September 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm

  • LEANN says:

    can mixing ambeim, muscle relaxers and xanax together killl you ?

    Posted on August 19, 2015 at 10:53 pm

  • Jim says:

    @Richard. you were on methadone… Usually because you are getting treatment for meth use, so the feeling of someone following you were from the meth. and stop picking at your feet, this is the meth making you imagine you have bugs or what ever your mind thought up on your feet. I would not doubt that your “hospital expierence” was nothing more then being high on methadone or meth or both. Lay off the drugs and your illusion of getting cut open while being wide awake will go away. For the rest of you It is sad and scary that this has happened. I know accidents do happen which should be forgiven, but when it happens due to and actual fault then that Dr should have to make it right. I went through a double lung transplant and was told I woke up during surgery screaming in pain. I have no memory of that and am thankful for that.

    Posted on December 2, 2015 at 1:54 am

  • Josh says:

    Jim- you have no clue what you are even talking about because methadone is not for METH use, it is for opiate dependency. You sound like a complete idiot and obviously do any kind of research before you accuse people of being on meth!!! Get over yourself

    Posted on January 26, 2016 at 12:18 pm

  • Connie says:

    You are totally correct in that the above comment is ignorant and this person has no clue. Also methadone is used for pain control and may have nothing at all to do with prior or current drug use.

    Posted on July 31, 2016 at 2:49 am

  • Shawn says:

    I have ptsd, add, OCD, explosive head syndrome and memory loss from anesthesia awareness. I also had to have another major surgery. Since I cannot sleep and have been told it is too dangerous for me to have another surgery. I also have brain injury. It also required another surgery to repair his mistake

    Posted on July 19, 2019 at 5:34 pm

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