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When Anesthesia Doesn't Work

Updated on September 21, 2011

An Article - A True Recounting of My Experiences with Anesthesia That Didn't Work

Did you ever have a fear going into a procedure or surgery that the anesthesia wouldn’t work correctly? That you would wake up, right in the middle, groggy and confused but understanding of the fact that that was occurring? Well then, let me ask you this - what if the anesthesia never worked at all?

I pose this question because in my life, I’ve been in both of those situations. The latter has to this day been one of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever had to endure.

When I was thirteen, I had to go for an endoscopy to see if I had extra acid in my stomach. This was the first hospital procedure I ever had, so naturally I was nervous. The anesthesiologist made me count back from ten. Everything seemed fine – until I woke up suddenly in the middle of the procedure, gagging. I had an overwhelming urge to rip out whatever camera wires and tubes they had lodged down my throat.

“She’s awake,” I remember someone calmly saying.

The room looked dark but I can recall it appearing to have a blurred orange glow to it. I looked over at the nurse helplessly and before I could do much else, I was asleep again.

I would have taken that experience ten times over compared to the hellish ordeal that I had to endure years later. A warning to the reader – the following is a true recounting of my experience and should not be read by the squeamish.

Back in September 2006, it was a new semester at college and I walked into my house at the end of the day feeling severely nauseated. I headed up to my bedroom with a rapidly forming migraine. I needed to lie down. In minutes, my head felt as though it were about to explode. There was a constant, intense pressure that wouldn’t subside. I remember screaming uncontrollably, wishing, praying it would stop.

I’d had headaches before, but nothing like that.

I didn’t know where to put myself. The slightest noise would jolt me and the faintest light caused blinding pain. Headache medicine did nothing to help. My parents tried old home remedies hoping that something would do the trick. Nothing worked.

In the coming days, I continued to have migraine after migraine - and just as extreme. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go to school – I couldn’t function. I had an appointment to see a neurologist. I went for an MRI and an MRA. When my doctor called and told me that she thought she picked up an aneurysm on my results, I burst into tears.

I went for a second opinion and a CT Scan. Those results were unclear. I then went for a third opinion. The new doctor told me that the results on my MRI and MRA might not be an aneurysm, but simply the bend in my vein. But there was only one way to find out for sure.

I had to have an angiogram.

My doctor informed me that I would be in a “twilight state.” That I would be asleep for the most part but might feel the warmth from the dye that they would be injecting me with once it reached my face. Okay. No big deal. I liked to think that at that point I had a relatively high tolerance for pain since my excruciating migraines were almost every single day for the last three months.

As I lie on the table, the doctors began to prep me and the anesthesiologist announced that he was giving me my anesthesia. Minutes passed and I was still looking around the room, a little too aware for my liking.

The doctors were starting the procedure. I felt them rubbing the cold iodine onto my skin and whatever topical they used as I shouted out, “How come I’m not sleeping yet?”

The doctors ignored me.

They made their incision and entered into my femoral artery, which I felt, and began screaming at the doctors.

One of them turned to the anesthesiologist and said, “Why is she still awake?” to which he replied, “I can’t give her any more. She doesn’t weigh enough.”

I became panicked and fidgety. A nurse told me to try to remain calm. I was going to have to be awake for the procedure. The first wave of the dye reached my face. I felt it flowing slowly through the veins in my right cheek like burning lava. I tried to remain calm. I knew I would feel the dye. I stared looking straight up at a round, white, circular machine placed above my face.

A lightening bolt flashed across my eyes from the machine as my head filled with a heaviness so powerful I thought my head would explode. I cried out and my body reacted to the pain by shifting on the table.

The doctor was stern and told me not to move. Over and over the doctor injected me with the dye and each time I saw the lightening bolt, my body would react. My right arm suddenly felt heavy during one of the dye injections. So heavy in fact, that I couldn’t feel it. My arm was dead to me.

“I can’t feel my right arm. Is that bad?” I cried to the doctor.

No response.

Another fiery wave of dye went through my face, worse than the rest.

“Hold her down!” the doctor yelled. Three nurses pinned me to the table, attempting to calm my intense sobbing. My body shook so hard I was practically convulsing on the table.

“That one came out blurry. We need to re-do it,” someone announced.

“Make him stop! Make him stop!” I cried to the nurses through half-gasped breaths.

“You need to stop moving. I’m in your femoral artery. If you don’t stay still you can bleed out!” the doctor snapped angrily at me.

I knew exactly what that meant. I’d seen enough television to understand that I could die if this happened. This was enough to force my body to go rigid but it continued to uncontrollably shake. I couldn’t stop it no matter how hard I tried.

When the longest hour of my life was over, the doctors and nurses began cleaning up and getting me ready for the recovery room. The doctor approached me and said flatly, “We didn’t find an aneurysm. You’re fine. I’ll go tell your parents.”

I didn’t respond. I took hiccuped gasps of air and stared straight ahead. All of the energy was drained from me. Thankfully, I had full feeling back in my right arm, but now my whole body was so exhausted that it was a task and a half to get me into a bed for a nurse to wheel me into recovery. I wasn’t allowed to sit completely up and was told to make sure that I kept my leg and torso straight to keep from creating any blood clots in my artery.

I refused any snacks or drink offered to me in the recovery room. I stared dazed in front of me - too traumatized to move. My father appeared a little while later. Once he peeked his head in, the tears flowed out of me. I couldn’t formulate the words to tell him what had happened. I simply sat there crying.

When things like this happen it makes me wonder why? Why did I need to endure that? Was it really necessary to force me to go through with a procedure that traumatizing without any anesthesia? Why do people wake up in the middle of a procedure? How does that happen?

I understand that these sorts of things happen often. Everyone may have his or her own stories from things like this happening.

Up until my follow-up endoscopy this last year, I had a genuine fear of anesthesia. I am glad to report that my latest endoscopy went off without a hitch. The anesthesiologist joked to me, “I’m going to send you to Bermuda,” after I told him quickly about my past experiences. I felt like I’d taken a five-minute nap and breathed a sigh of relief when I awoke without any tubes down my throat.

I understand that anesthesia affects everyone differently and sometimes - freaky things like that happen. I just wish I could forget the feeling - wish I could block out what I went through.

One thing I've learned from all this is that you take your experiences with you – the good, the bad, the horrible and the strange.

Have you had any negative reactions to anesthesia?

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    • profile image


      11 months ago

      It doesn't work with me too

    • Cheryl O Meara profile image

      Cheryl O Meara 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario

      I have had similar experiences. 8 years ago, I had an endoscopy done. They gave me the anaesthetics, but I wouldn't go out. They asked if I was okay to go on. I told them yes, and they proceeded down my esophagus, through my stomach and into my small intestine. I stayed calm because I found it interesting, watching it on the screen.

      In November of 2012, I had to have emergency surgery to remove a very large cyst from my cervix. They gave me anaesthetics and told me to count backwards, I didn't go out. They gave me local anaesthetics, and injected anaesthetics directly into my veins. They didn't work either. They went on with the surgery. I can remember it like it was yesterday. 3 nurses held me down, as I screamed and fought to get away. Another nurse injected me with fentanyl, then gave me nitrous oxide. After the surgery, they made me walk down a long hallway to the recovery room. 2 nurses had to help me walk, I asked for a wheelchair and they told me I didn't need one. While in recovery, I went into shock. My blood pressure dropped down to 60/35. It was the most traumatic experience I've ever been through.

    • profile image

      Fred Morgan 

      4 years ago

      I recently had my wisdom teeth removed. Either the surgeon didn't wait long enough for the anesthesia to take effect or didn't give me enough, but I felt at least two of the five teeth to be removed being pulled. I remember saying " Aaahhhhhh!!!" which the surgeon replied "Just a little pressure, just a little pressure."

    • profile image

      Darla Redilla 

      6 years ago

      I have had three bad experiences with anesthesia not working, the worst one was a 6 minute c-section that I had felt the entire surgery and the doctor documented it as a text book procedure with no complications. I am looking for some help and it is as though no one believes that i am feeling these procedures as though i was not screaming and begging them to stop. Two days ago i had surgery on my right wrist and i explained to the doctor of past experiences and was assured it would be fine. I am glad that procedure was under ten minutes and again I felt the entire procedure other than the incision. I do not understand and dont know how to find the information to help me to prevent this from continuing to happen to me through out the rest of my life. i had surgery to my finger and was put to sleep and thankfully did not feel anything with that one but two childbirths with problems and one surgery to my wrist and do not want to have to this continue to happen. Unsure what to do!

    • Lyla Day profile imageAUTHOR

      Lyla Day 

      7 years ago

      It's horrible how some people have such negative reactions towards it. I can't believe they gave you too much! I think when things like this happen (and have traumatic effects) there should be a lawsuit involved.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I feel so bad for you and what you had to endure. That is horrible and unexcusable! I have had 2 different surgeries where I woke up in the middle and cried out in pain. Then, I once was given too much anesthesia and almost never woke up. I had to stay in the hospital for days before I could eat without heaving. It just "puts me over the edge"! A great hub. Thanks. UP


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