We've all seen the stats that paint anesthesia awareness as something to shoo away, some freak thing that happens to one or two of every 1,000 patients who receive general anesthesia. But then you talk to Carol Weihrer and you come away with a sense of the horror and the torture it must be to experience awareness and clear-as-day recall that haunts you day and night.
Ms. Weihrer's right eye was enucleated in 1998. She figures she was aware but unable to scream or flail for 40 or so minutes of the five-hour surgery. It wasn't the pain or the pulling or the pressure so much as the awareness and the helplessness and the silent screams to God that rattled around in her mind.
"I saw the light go out when they cut the optic nerve," she says. "I heard them and I felt them pulling the eye out. I saw everything go black. I was as alert and was thinking as logically and thoughtfully as I am talking to you this minute, but I couldn't scream, couldn't wiggle."
I asked her to describe the sensation of awareness. We ended up playing word association.
Awareness? "Like being entombed in a corpse. Perhaps the most helpless and terrifying feeling in the world."
Paralytic? "Like lying on the coals of hell. When I managed to twitch, the anesthesiologist gave me another dose of paralytic drug."
Today? Ms. Weihrer, 52 and single and living in Reston, Va., suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorders. She's on pain and psychiatric medications. And she's on a one-woman crusade to raise awareness of anesthesia awareness, speaking to healthcare professionals and to the media at every chance she gets (see our story on page 42) as part of her Anesthesia Awareness Campaign.
Unable to work, she has dedicated her life to preventing awareness, which by conservative estimates happens 100 times a day in the United States alone. She's got the Web site (writeOutLink("www.anesthesiaawareness.com",1)), the e-mail address (writeMail("[email protected]")), the booklet ("I Was Awake") and the desire to prevent patients from experiencing the rare but frightening prospect of being aware during their surgery through education, prevention and empowerment. She's won significant attention in the medical community, but some anesthesiologists worry that her campaign my be causing undue fear.
"I truly believe in my heart that this is my mission," she says. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing."