It sounds like something out of a nightmare, but for Canadian woman Donna Penner, waking up and being conscious for her entire abdominal surgery was very much real life. Penner wrote an essay for BBC detailing the terrifying time she woke up paralyzed right before being cut open for an exploratory laparoscopy in 2008, and recalled how she was able to feel every incision for a grueling hour and a half as a doctor operated on her.
An exploratory laparoscopy is an abdominal surgery that involves a fiber-optic instrument being inserted through the abdominal wall to view the organs in the abdomen. During surgery prep, Penner was given an intravenous drip by an anesthesiologist as well as a paralytic, which is a common for these types of surgeries because relaxes the abdominal muscles and makes it easier for the doctor to slice through the tissue.
Penner recalls immediately falling asleep after she was given the general anesthetic, but woke up soon after. She assumed the surgery was finished, but was horrified when she heard the surgeon say "scalpel, please." The general anesthetic hadn't worked, but the paralytic had. Penner was not at the end of her surgery—they had just begun.
I panicked. I thought this cannot be happening. So I waited for a few seconds, but then I felt him make the first incision. I don't have words to describe the pain - it was horrific. I could not open my eyes. The first thing that I tried to do was to sit up, but I couldn't move. It felt like somebody was sitting on me, weighing me down. I wanted to say something, I wanted to move, but I couldn't. I was so paralyzed I couldn't even make the tears to cry.
Penner tried to make small movements to alert the staff that she was awake, but was completely paralyzed. At one point she says she was able to twitch her foot, but a nurse just held it down without verbally communicating that she was moving. She wrote how she heard the doctors talking, felt the pain of the instruments cutting through her skin, and even heard her own heart rate rising on the monitor.
To top it all off, because I was paralyzed, they had intubated me - put me on a breathing machine - and set the ventilator to breathe seven times a minute. Even though my heart rate was up at 148 beats per minute, that's all I got - those seven breaths a minute. I was suffocating. It felt as though my lungs were on fire.
Eventually, the paralytic wore off enough to the point that Penner could wiggle her breathing tube with her tongue and garner the attention of the doctor. It eventually worked, and the anesthesiologist removed the breathing tube from her throat. However, without the tube, she was unable to breathe. For a moment, Penner recalls having an out of body experience and feeling like she had died and went to heaven. Eventually the doctors noticed she was struggling and gave her an oxygen bag to restore her breathing.
After the ordeal, Penner sued the hospital. Although the incident occurred nine years ago, Penner still has trauma due to the experience, but is continuing to work through it by seeing a therapist.
My story is not to lay blame or to point fingers. I want people to understand that this thing can happen and does happen. I want to raise awareness, and help something good come out of this awful experience.
To read Donna Penner's essay for BBC in its entirety here.