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What it feels like to ‘wake up’ during surgery (by someone it happened to)

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Tristan Cross
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What it feels like to ‘wake up’ during surgery (by someone it happened to) 4

The first instalment of a new series in which we speak to people who have come face to face with some of our deepest, most primal fears. First up - what happens when you can suddenly feel what’s happening on the operation table…

I am squeamish as all hell. I don’t like the idea of all my corporeal cogs whirring away beneath my skin. The idea of anything anatomical does something weird to my belly button that makes me feel sick. The idea of my belly button also induces this feeling.

I am just a bunch of parts being held together in a bag of flesh, and all of those things can go wrong. I don’t understand how people who become surgeons manage to dissociate the fact they’re tinkering with a human being. Surgeons freak me out.

Surgery freaks me out, too. I remember reading about a guy who was placed into a medically induced coma for an operation but they couldn’t revive him afterwards. He was kept alive on a life support machine for decades, seemingly still in this coma. Then, one day, he managed to let out a muffled scream. He’d actually been sentient the whole time.

This is the driver behind my fear of surgery going wrong: being aware of it. Bri Regas, an American, actually experienced this so I asked him what it was really like.

What was the context of your operation?

I was getting Lasik surgery on my eyes, and you’re awake the whole time, but they use numbing solution so you’re not supposed to feel anything. They prop open your eyelids with a suction-cup thing and use a machine to cut a flap on your eyeball. The doctor then uses a spatula to pull back the flap and a laser burns parts of your eye. You can smell it!

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So what went wrong?

When they put numbing drops in my eyes they asked if they were numb, but it’s not like you can normally feel your eyes so I said “yeah.” They did the procedure on my left eye first and everything went smoothly, but when they went to put the suction on my right eye I could feel it on my eye. They then made the cut and it felt really warm and stung, then when the doctor put the spatula down I could feel it touch my eye, but I thought I was just being crazy. He pulled the eye flap back and I felt it. I yelled “Fuck” and the doc stopped immediately, dousing my eyes with numbing fluid before continuing. 

Just how excruciating was the pain, if you had to put it on a scale of pain you’d felt?

Hmm, I’d say about a 7 or 8. It felt like a searing papercut across my eye.

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How long did it take them to realise?

Instantly. They didn’t panic; they remained really calm about it, so it must not be that rare. They just drowned my eyeball in numbing eye-drops until I couldn’t feel anything.

Did you feel any pain after the operation?

I don’t think I felt any more pain than anyone else having the procedure, just the normal 2 days of healing. But if I thought about the feeling of the flap being pulled, my hand would instinctively move to my eye. I’m sort of getting that feeling talking about it now…

Were you ever squeamish before the operation, and has it changed you since?

I’m not squeamish – I work in pathology. No - I’d get it done all over again in a second, even without numbing. It would still be completely worth it. Being able to see is everything, and a few minutes or days of pain are worth it.

(Illustration by Francesco Del Re)

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Tristan Cross

Tristan Cross is the only writer in the UK

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