Woman Wakes Up Mid-Surgery, Paralyzed and in Pain

"I was buried alive inside myself," patient says.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 2:11 PM

Nov. 30, 2007— -- It is one horror that not even Hollywood can exaggerate.

You're supposed to be unconscious from the anesthetic, but suddenly your brain wakes up, so you hear and feel everything. But your body remains "paralyzed" -- unable to cry out for help or stop the pain to come.

When you have surgery, you assume you'll be unconscious and feel no pain. And that's usually the case. But 20,000 to 40,000 Americans each year aren't so lucky.

Click here for more information on when patient awareness happens and how you can reduce the risk of it happening to you.

Waking up during surgery is just what happened to Jeannette Magdelene.

"As soon as he put the scalpel into my flesh," she said, "It was as though someone took a blow torch and stuck it in the right side of my stomach."

But she was powerless to stop it.

"I couldn't speak to let someone know I was awake. I couldn't move anything. I was buried alive inside myself. Frozen from head to toe."

Joint Commission, the independent, nonprofit organization that accredits hospitals, calls it a "frightening phenomenon" that is "under recognized and under treated."

The cause of the problem often boils down to basic medical errors: Anesthesiologists using the wrong drugs, or inadequate doses of the right drugs.

One solution, according to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, is to use brain monitors.

Dr. John Zerwas, who works at the Houston hospital, said, "The brain wave activity starts to get to a point where we see that awareness is a potential problem, and so we can deepen the anesthesia."

The machine, which sells for as little as $5,000, reassured Bill Hamm as he went into surgery this morning.

"It takes away the chance for human error in anesthesia," he said.

But the American Society of Anesthesiologists is not convinced and said there's just not enough data to prove the machines are the answer.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.