Surgical Awakening

Man's family says he committed suicide because he did not get anesthesia.

ByABC News via via logo

May 30, 2007 — -- As 73-year-old Sherman Sizemore prepared to undergo gall bladder surgery in January 2006, no one realized he would awake a different person.

"There was something there that changed him so profusely that he was not the same man," said Lenoka Graham, Sizemore's daughter.

The Baptist minister complained he was unable to sleep and felt the sensation of being buried alive. "He was scared to be alone, he had nightmares," Graham said. "(He) thought he was falling in a hole."

Sherman was so tortured, he committed suicide. It wasn't until his wake that his family learned what might have been the cause of his troubles. A doctor told them Sherman may have been awake during surgery. Later, the family also learned Sherman told a friend he was awake and alert during the procedure.

"Dad had said he said, 'You know I felt them cut me open, I felt that,'" said his daughter, Sheila Dickens.

Sizemore received a drug to prevent movement during the operation. But the family claims the anesthesiologist did not administer the anesthesia until 16 minutes after the first incision. He was paralyzed and essentially unable to cry out for help.

"If you sit for 16 minutes and think … for a second about 16 minutes … it is terrible," Dickens said.

The family filed a lawsuit against the anesthesiologists, who deny the charges. Their attorney told ABC News the allegations are inconsistent with the facts known at this time.

While Sizemore's case is extreme, what he may have suffered has a name: anesthesia awareness. Some estimates suggest it occurs in about 20,000 surgeries per year. This includes everything from a slight recall to actually being awake during surgery.

"It can vary from feeling pushing or pulling to hearing the voices in the operating room to actual pain," said anesthesiologist Dr. James Cottrell.

A brain monitoring device in the operating room could detect awareness in a patient, but many doctors doubt the reliability of such monitors. The Sizemores want to bring awareness to this terrifying experience in hopes no other family will have to endure what they have.

"No one should have to be as tortured as our dad was," Graham said. For Sherman Sizemore's wife of 56 years, the loss is immeasurable.

"He was my life on this Earth. He was all I had, and when he was taken they took so much from me that it's been very difficult," Ruby Sizemore said.

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