This is a surgical patient's worst nightmare. Frankly it's also an anesthesiologist's worst nightmare too. In July 2020, Matthew Caswell underwent a hernia operation at Progress West Hospital in O'Fallon, Missouri. Unfortunately he was awake for at least thirteen minutes during the operation. The anesthesia team had paralyzed him then forgot to turn on a volatile agent to induce amnesia.
Mr. Caswell said he knew something was off when he could feel his skin being cleaned with the cold prepping agent. Expecting that his anesthesia would kick in any moment, next thing he felt was the knife cutting his skin. He was paralyzed and could not inform the anesthesia team that he was awake. His heart rate jumped from 70 to 115. Meanwhile his blood pressure shot up from 113/73 to 158/113. He could feel three trocars inserted through his abdominal wall and his abdomen being insufflated for the operation.
According to the lawsuit, the anesthesia team at this point should have noticed that something was wrong. Yet no further anesthesia was given for thirteen minutes. In the meantime he could hear and feel everything that was going on in the operating room. Mr. Caswell said he was so scared he thought he was having a heart attack.
The anesthesia records later showed a "Significant Event Note." It said that "review of the anesthetic record demonstrates a delay in initiating inhalational anesthetic after induction of anesthesia." Mr. Caswell and his mother were "immediately informed regarding the delay in initiating the inhaled anesthetic agent until after the start of the surgical procedure." It goes on to say that the hospital provided emotional support immediately after the surgery and they would offer psychological counseling for free. His mother took a video of Matthew immediately after the operation and it's clear he has been traumatized by the entire ordeal.
Mr. Caswell is suing Washington University along with the anesthesiologist, Brian Weber, MD, JD, and Kathleen O'Leary, CRNA. (Though the first page of the complaint says Dr. Weber's first name is Brian, the subsequent pages of the complaint call him Bruce. I can't explain the discrepancy.) I can't think of much defense they can mount against this tragedy. Better just write a big fat check right now. Lucky for them the plaintiff is suing each defendent for only $25,000 each.
This is going to be an unfortunate black mark on this young anesthesiologist's career. It's the kind of incident that can easily derail a promising new physician and make him question everything he's learned during training. Though not as traumatized as the patient, Dr. Weber is likely to feel enormous guilt for a very long time.
There are various methods to prevent surgical recall. Some have advocated using a BIS monitor to track a patient's level of consciousness. Other's show that making sure enough inhalational agents in the patient will prevent recall just as well as the BIS. Giving the patient midazolam preoperatively can help ensure amnesia in case not enough gas has been given to the patient.
Perhaps the most important thing the anesthesiologist can do is to always be vigilant. Be constantly aware of what is happening to the patient. Just because an operation is likely to be routine and uneventful is not an excuse to stop monitoring the patient scrupulously. If the anesthesia team in this case had been more attentive to the stresses manifested by Mr. Caswell's tortured surgery, maybe they wouldn't have waited thirteen whole minutes before finally giving him his anesthesia.