Hollywood Fiction or Fact? Awake While Under the Knife

December 7, 2007 - Posted at 5:12 p.m. CDT

JONESBORO, AR -- Hollywood is bringing horror to the silver screen in a psychological thriller about a common occurrences referred to as "anesthetic awareness" in a film called Awake.

The condition occurs when failed anesthesia leaves a patient fully conscious but paralyzed during surgery.

Every year it's estimated that around one in 1,000 people wake up during surgery...but why does it happen and can doctors prevent it?

Anesthesia awareness, or 'unintended intra-operative awareness' occurs when a patient has not had enough general anesthetic to prevent consciousness and the recall of events...a scary situation Hollywood is putting front and center on the big screen.

'The worst scenario is the patient who has a muscle relaxer and has recall and has pain.  Those are extremely rare cases," said Anestiologist Dr. Al Aquino of NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro.

Dr. Aquino uses the help of a BIS monitor to watch for patients awakening.  Though not required, NEA Baptist features the machines in every room for patients.

"The best monitor for preventing this is us.  A nurse anesthetists or an anesthesiologist, we're simply the best monitor," said Dr. Aquino. Aquino believes determining how much anesthesia is a balancing act.

Patients are assessed based on anxiety, health, type of procedure and prior experiences under the knife.

"Essentially before we put you asleep, all of our patients get a sedative before they go into the operating room, so a great amount of patients going to the operating room won't even remember going," said Dr. Aquino.

Obstetrics patients, females and those taking muscle relaxers have higher rates of suffering anesthesia awareness.

"The depth of anesthesia is based basically on our expertise, knowing how much anesthetic you need for all the procedures that you do," said Dr. Aquino.

Awake has been in theatres for a week and has already raked in nearly $6 million dollars.