Anesthesia is one of the most important medical advances in the past 200 years. Before its invention, patients would have to undergo surgery either wide awake or only after getting drunk. They could suffer unimaginable pain. Anesthesia has made surgery bearable for millions of people.
Modern anesthesia is not without problems, however. One rare issue involves a person who wakes up during surgery. Called anesthesia awareness, this condition can leave someone with major psychological distress from the experience. Our New York medical malpractice lawyer explains more in this article and encourages anyone suffering from this condition to call Powers & Santola, LLP.
What is Anesthesia Awareness?
There are different types of anesthesia. Local anesthesia, for example, numbs only a part of the body. The patient otherwise remains awake during the procedure. For example, someone going in for dental surgery might have a tooth or portion of their mouth numbed with Novocaine but otherwise remain awake during the procedure.
General anesthesia involves putting someone in an unconscious state, which is ideal for surgery. This is when anesthesia awareness might occur. The patient is not supposed to wake up—but they do. The medical term for this experience is “Accidental Awareness during General Anesthesia” or AAGA.
Being awake does not mean the person feels pain (although they could). Anesthesia suppresses the central nervous system. When a person wakes up, the parts of the system responsible for pain might still remain suppressed. That means the person who is awake does not feel anything. But they can also be unable to move or convey to their surgical team that they are awake. Instead, they suffer the scary experience of being conscious but paralyzed.
How Common is Anesthesia Awareness?
According to the Mayo Clinic, 1-2 people per 1,000 might experience accidental anesthesia awareness. That works out to around one tenth of one percent (0.1%). Many of the people who experience anesthesia awareness do not experience pain.
Still, waking up during surgery can be traumatic. One study showed that around 50% of those who experienced anesthesia awareness suffered from intense emotional distress after surgery. Roughly 4 in 10 suffered from long term trauma like PTSD.
Anesthesia awareness can make it hard for patients to voluntarily undergo future surgeries, degrading their quality of life and worsening medical conditions. Some patients will need counseling to help them cope with the experience.
What Causes Anesthesia Awareness?
Waking up while being under general anesthesia is atypical. Consequently, researchers are trying to uncover what causes it.
No consensus has emerged to explain AAGA but some causes might include:
- Dosing errors. A patient might receive too little anesthesia, which causes them to wake up. Dosing errors stem from not analyzing a patient’s medical history sufficiently or being careless when dosing a patient.
- Drug or alcohol use. Patients who use alcohol or opiates daily can experience greater risk of anesthesia awareness.
- Failure to monitor patients. An anesthesiologist might become aware that a patient is awake if they were paying sufficient attention. But carelessness in the operating room can make the problem worse.
- Defective drugs. Anesthesia typically uses different medications. Some meds relax muscles, while others induce sleep or block pain reception. One or more of these drugs could be defective and fail to work as expected. In other words, your anesthesiologist did nothing wrong, but the drugs they used were defective.
Your Legal Remedies for Waking Up During Surgery
Anesthesiologists receive extensive medical training. The entire goal of general anesthesia is to ensure a patient is unconscious, so any accidental awareness is a failure to provide care. What can you do?
One legal option is to seek compensation. Based on the facts, we might sue:
- Anesthesiologist for failing to follow the correct standard of care. This is an example of medical negligence.
- A hospital if it employs the anesthesiologist. A hospital can have automatic liability for any negligence committed by an employee.
- The manufacturer of defective drugs or equipment. This would be a product liability claim against a manufacturer.
- Our legal team will analyze what compensation to seek. We often sue for:
- Future medical care, including future surgeries, doctor’s visits, therapist sessions, and prescription medication, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.
- Loss of income, if the emotional fallout of AAGA keeps you out of work.
- Emotional distress, including PTSD.
- Physical pain and discomfort, including sleeplessness.
In many cases, compensation for emotional distress and/or pain will make up the bulk of the settlement. You should work closely with your legal team to fully document the fallout from AAGA. We can negotiate for a settlement with the defendant responsible for your experience. Anesthesiologists and hospitals carry malpractice insurance, which can pay compensation to injured patients. And manufacturers have liability insurance for when their products harm consumers.
Why These Cases Are Complicated
Obtaining a fair settlement for anesthesia awareness is not as seamless as many patients hope. You might confront disbelief that you actually woke up during surgery, especially where your surgical team doesn’t notice anything unusual.
As mentioned above, many people who awaken are paralyzed because the muscle relaxers continue to work. There is nothing in their medical file substantiating their claim.
Another challenge is proving distress. An insurance adjuster might accept that you were conscious during surgery—at least for a little bit—but not believe you are suffering ongoing emotional trauma from the experience. As a result, they might offer a very low settlement with little compensation for mental anguish.
Call Our New York Medical Malpractice Lawyers Today
Surgery is a scary experience as it is. No one needs to gain consciousness while lying on the operating table. If this happened to you, please call Powers & Santola, LLP. Our legal team has sued many doctors, hospitals, and anesthesiologists over the years for malpractice. We will gladly provide an assessment of your case in a free consultation if you reach out to our firm. Please avoid delay. New York gives patients a short window of time to file a lawsuit in court.