This woman woke up during surgery — here’s how often that actually happens

Nine years ago, a woman from Canada endured something we can only imagine in our wildest nightmares. She woke up right in the middle of the abdominal surgery being performed on her — and she wasn’t able to move or even open her eyes. Donna Penner, who was 44 years old at the time, was given a general anaesthetic before the surgery started. She drifted off to sleep like she was supposed to, and when she woke up, she thought the surgery was over.

And now, Penner wrote about her experience firsthand for the BBC. When she awoke, she was simply “feeling a little medicated,” but she realized something was very wrong when she heard the surgeon speak. It was then that Penner understood that the anaesthetic hadn’t worked, but the paralytic had, so she was completely paralyzed from head to toe, and she couldn’t notify the surgeons that she was awake.

The pain she experienced throughout the hour-and-a-half long surgery was indescribable. “I felt him moving my organs around as he explored,” she writes. She tried to get the attention of the anaesthesiologist by moving the tube in her throat with her tongue. When they finally realized she was awake, they took the tube out, but she was unable to breathe. They had to use a manual resuscitator to force air into her lungs and bring her back.

The surgeon came to speak to her after it was over.

"I said to him, 'I was awake, I felt you cutting me.' His eyes filled with tears as he grabbed on to my hands and said, 'I am so sorry,'" Penner writes.

It’s reported, according to BBC, that one in every 19,000 operations result in the patient waking up during the surgery, although some experts believe the number could be even higher, such as one in every 600 operations. The majority of these people are only awake for five minutes or less, but still, the trauma experienced in those few minutes will surely last with them a lifetime. 40 percent of these patients suffer from moderate to severe psychological distress as a result.

Luckily Penner is at a place now where she can tell her story and prevent this from happening to anyone else. “My story is not to lay blame or to point fingers. I want people to understand that this thing can happen and does happen,” Penner writes. “I want to raise awareness, and help something good come out of this awful experience.”

We sure hope doctors and anaesthesiologists are able to learn from this, because nobody deserves to go through that kind of suffering.