Rare horror is the focus of a new movie

LUCAS OLENIUK/Torstar News Service


Victims of the rare and traumatic experience of coming to during surgery are the subject of a new Hollywood thriller.

Sometimes the nightmare starts when you wake up.

Eight years ago Yvonne Coleman drifted off to sleep on a New York operating table as a team of surgeons prepared her for a two-hour surgery to remove an abdominal hernia.

“I remember the surgeon asking, ‘Are you ready kiddo?’

“‘Ready for what?’ I thought to myself,” says Coleman who, at that point, wondered if her surgery was over and she was being awakened.

Then she felt a knife cut her open. “I felt every tug and pull. I heard them making fun of my weight. I heard them making plans for the Christmas party. But I was completely paralyzed,” she says.

“In my head I was screaming. I wanted to die.”

Any patient who’s lived through the horror of regaining consciousness in the middle of a surgical procedure will never forget the surgeon’s scalpel slicing their skin, the sight of their own blood, the smell of cauterized flesh and the business-as-usual conversations going on above them. Meanwhile, they lay still, unable to wiggle a finger, blink, cry out, or in any way indicate they’re awake.

Now, the victims of this rare and traumatic experience are the subject of a Hollywood thriller about their painful ordeal.

Awake features Hayden Christensen as a young husband who comes to during open-heart surgery, but who is also unable to move or talk.

Like other patients who’ve experienced intraoperative or anesthesia awareness, Christensen wakes up just as his complicated surgery is about to begin.

Jessica Alba stars as his wife, and Terrence Howard plays a doctor in the film, which is set for release this fall.

He is being operated upon without benefit of pain-blocking anesthesia but, because he’s paralyzed, he can’t do a thing about it.

The movie’s premise is not so far-fetched, writes Dr. Beverley Orser, a professor with the University of Toronto’s physiology department, in the June issue of Scientific American magazine. Her article, Lifting the Fog Around Anesthesia, clears the air on the complicated subject of modern anesthetics.

“Anesthesiologists are not looking forward to (Awake) coming out at all,” says Scott Beattie, director of pre-operative assessment and clinical research for the University Health Network, and a professor at UofT.

“The public has become more aware of the possibility,” he says. “People are plugged in and they worry about it,” and some patients fear it’s unsafe to go under the knife.

Beattie is mainly speaking of the subgroup of patients who are most at risk: Those who must receive limited amounts of anesthesia, such as high-risk cardiac patients, women having caesarean sections and patients whose doctors want them to awaken immediately after surgery.

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