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This Woman Woke Up During Surgery and It Was Awful

Cosmopolitan logo Cosmopolitan 2/16/2017 Gina Mei

This Woman Woke Up During Surgery and It Was Awful © Getty This Woman Woke Up During Surgery and It Was Awful It sounds like something straight out of a horror movie: A woman goes in for surgery, only to wake up - paralyzed and unable to move - right before the doctor makes his first incision.

But this is exactly what happened to Donna Penner when she went in for an exploratory laparoscopy in 2008, and she's decided to share her story in order to raise awareness of this horrifying possibility for others. As she writes in an essay for BBC, Penner had been experiencing unusually heavy periods at the age of 44, and went in for the surgery in order to make sure everything was OK. As she explains, the surgery required three to four small incisions in the abdomen, which the surgeon would then push instruments through in order to "look around." While the operation started off fine, it wasn't long before things took an absolutely terrifying turn.

After getting getting prepped for the surgery, an anesthesiologist gave her an intravenous drip then told her to "take a deep breath." She immediately fell asleep, only to wake up soon after - assuming the surgery was over. 

"I was lying there feeling a little medicated, but at the same time I was also alert and enjoying that lazy feeling of waking up and feeling completely relaxed," she wrote. "That changed a few seconds later when I heard the surgeon speak. They were moving around and doing their things and then all of a sudden I heard him say, 'Scalpel please.'"

Penner immediately started to panic. 

"There was nothing I could do," she wrote for the BBC. "I had been given a paralytic, which is a common thing they do when work on the abdomen because it relaxes the abdominal muscles so they don't resist as much when you're cutting through them."

"Unfortunately the general anesthetic hadn't worked, but the paralytic had," she continued. "I panicked. I thought this cannot be happening. So I waited for a few seconds, but then I felt him make the first incision. I don't have words to describe the pain - it was horrific."

Because the paralytic had worked, Penner was unable to move at all - and couldn't even open her eyes to signal to the surgeon she was conscious. Despite wanting to sit up, she said "it felt like somebody was sitting on me, weighing me down." She couldn't move, she couldn't speak, and she "couldn't even make the tears to cry."

"At that point, I could hear my heart-rate on the monitor: It kept going up higher and higher," she wrote. "I was in a state of sheer terror. I could hear them working on me, I could hear them talking. I felt the surgeon make those incisions and push those instruments through my abdomen."

"I felt him moving my organs around as he explored," she continued. "I heard him say things like, 'Look at her appendix, it's really nice and pink, colon looks good, ovary looks good.'"

As if that weren't already horrifying enough, when she was finally able to twitch her foot in an attempt to convey she was awake, one of the doctors simply steadied her without saying a word - and Penner was forced to endure the entire hour-and-a-half surgery while conscious.

It gets even worse: Because she had been paralyzed for the surgery, she had also been intubated with a breathing machine, which continued giving her seven breaths per minute despite her elevated heart rate. As the paralytic wore off, she began to use her tongue to move the breathing tube to try and again alert someone she was conscious - but instead, the anesthesiologist took it as a sign she was able to breathe on her own again, and yanked it out.

"I lay there thinking, 'Now I'm really in trouble,'" she wrote. "I'd already said mental goodbyes to my family because I didn't think I was going to pull through. Now I couldn't breathe. I could hear the nurse yelling at me. She was on one side saying, 'Breathe Donna, breathe.' But there was nothing I could do."

At this point, she had an out-of-body experience that she says took away all of her fear and pain.

"I'm of Christian faith and I can't say I went to heaven, but I wasn't on Earth either," she wrote. "There was a presence with me. I always say that was God with me because there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was there beside me. And then I heard a voice saying, 'Whatever happens, you're going to be OK.'"

Soon after, she snapped back to her body, and the doctors put a manual resuscitator over her mouth, forcing air back into her lungs. She had survived one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.

Nine years later, Penner is still coping with the trauma of the incident, but hopes sharing her story will help raise awareness of the possibility of a similar incident happening to someone else. You can read the rest of her essay for the BBCright here.

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