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Under Anesthesia, But Still Aware

During surgery to remove a damaged right eye, Carol Weihrer woke up.

"I was totally awake and aware," she says, "but completely unable to communicate or move in any way at all. …I heard the surgeon telling the resident to cut deeper and pull harder."

Carol was motivated to start a campaign about "anethesia awareness" to help inform other patients, reports Dr. Emily Senay on The Early Show.

"I have personally spoken on the phone with well over 2,000 victims," she says.

Awareness during surgery is an issue that is not new to anesthesiologists.

Dr. Aryeh Shander, chief of anesthesiology at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, says people who wake up during surgery "are not completely anesthetized during the surgical procedure, which can mean a couple of things. One is that they may be paralyzed, because of the medications we give to relax their muscles. ...So you may feel pain, and you may feel that you're awake during surgery. But you have no way of communicating that to the physicians and nurses that are in the room."

Out of more than 20 million surgeries in ths U.S. every year, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 patients experience some level of awareness.

Shander says the risk of anesthesia awareness is relatively small. To help minimize the risk even more, brain wave monitors are used during surgery at Englewood Hospital.

"You can see a number that rises as the patient becomes more awake," Shankder explains. "The idea is that if there is any kind of suggestion that the number that we're reading is one where the patient may not have anesthesia on board, we will treat it."

New guidelines from a leading healthcare accreditor now urge all hospitals to take the necessary steps to address the problem.

The new guidelines suggest that these types of monitors (or some other form of monitoring) be used under general anesthesia, Shander notes. "They also give you guidelines in how to approach a patient who has been diagnosed with awareness and to recognize that when you have a patient who has had awareness under anesthesia during surgery, that these patients are suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder.'

"I still have nightmares, night tremors," Weihrer says.

She hopes the new guidelines will help others like her who experience the worst: "Every patient will now be asked if they have any recall. And those that respond 'yes' will be treated specially."

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