Blood, sweat and tears: my dates with anesthesia

by Alaina Mabaso

The pain scale would be more accurate if a screaming face, not a crying one, topped it off.

The pain scale would be more accurate if it didn’t end with a crying face. A screaming one would be better.

Before the deep, stinging burn slid under the skin of my right hand, the nurse smiled at me. “This is the drug that Michael Jackson made famous,” she said. Is that what they say now before they shoot you up with propofol?

It all started last Monday, when I thought a cool shower might help my migraine (I hadn’t been able to eat for 24 hours). Weak and dizzy, I slipped a little getting out of the tub.

My mom describes back spasms as having your muscles electrocuted. I say imagine holding a blowtorch to your spine. The spasms plague my low back once or twice a year, and this was the second time they’ve landed me in the Emergency Room, incoherent with agony.

Problem patient

To the chagrin of most doctors, I am narcotics “non-tolerant.” One Percocet and I’m a sweating, shaking, tragically nauseated wreck. So once the hospital techs took my blood pressure and temperature, botched one IV line and then started another for fluids and migraine meds, Chad the ER doctor at Abington Memorial Hospital stood with his hands on his hips while the IV bruises spread across the backs of my hands.

“Well, if we can’t give you any narcotics, what do you want us to do with you?” he asked.

The honest answer was that I wanted him to find a quiet corner of the barn and shoot me with the family rifle, but all I could do was cover my eyes against the fluorescent lights. They wheeled me out one Valium later, still shrieking with pain.


On Wednesday, a lumbar specialist took a second look at a recent MRI and pointed to a herniated disc, and, for good measure, another disc with a fissure in it. Unable to sit, stand or walk without more tears than I cried while watching Titanic at age 14, I needed a “heavily sedated” epidural, stat.

The next morning, about four nurses helped me into a hospital bed at S.E. PA Pain Management. They looped an oxygen tube under my nose, explaining that the plasticky-cool gush of air was because the anesthetic might depress my breathing.

Going under

A recent Radiolab segment examined the history of anesthesia, from early 19th-century amputations on conscious patients, performed on the top floor of hospitals so passersby couldn’t hear the screams, to modern doctors’ theory that anesthesia may work not by knocking out the brain’s functions, but by preventing different sections of the brain from conversing. We’re still not sure why anesthesia is so different from sleep, which doesn’t rob us of a sense of the passage of time.

While the nurses prepped me for my latest date with oblivion, necessary for my spinal injections, I thought about my past run-ins with the miracle and mystery of anesthesia.

The first time I was ever sedated was when I had my wisdom teeth out. When I climbed into the chair, I remember thinking I should have gone to the bathroom first. And then, suddenly, nothing mattered at all. Even when the dentist’s instruments blocked my airway, I didn’t worry. I just waved my hand a bit and then resumed breathing.

Later, frequent bouts of strep throat sent me for a teenage tonsillectomy. I remember the ride to the OR on my back, the chill, the white blaze of the lights and a burn up my arm, and then the lines between the ceiling tiles began to droop and swerve like a Dali painting.

The next thing I remember is suddenly becoming aware of the darkness behind my eyelids, followed by the fire in my throat.

My next date with the anesthesiologist was the order of a rather sadistic urologist who wanted to see the inside of my bladder but kept me conscious for the catheterization — the agony of which is a hallmark of the disease he diagnosed. I was never so grateful for darkness, and the next thing I remember, the good doctor was standing by my bed in the recovery ward.

“You won’t remember anything I say now,” he said. “You have interstitial cystitis. I could see your bladder bleeding.” He walked away, and I began to sob.

Water it down

Why? I don’t know. I cried and cried. The nurse handed me a box of tissues but otherwise ignored me. Since then, I’ve learned that many people weep as they come out of anesthesia, though a few friends have told me they woke up in fits of laughter instead.

Last week, I felt the squirt of propofol burn up the middle of my lower right arm. Five seconds later, I felt deliciously sleepy.

But then the nurse took the oxygen line out of my nose.

“Hey,” I said. “I thought I needed that. Aren’t you going to tell me what happens as you go?”

“Honey,” she answered, “it’s all done.”

My emotions squished like a busted gel-pack. I don’t remember going to sleep or waking up, but the doctor had picked me up, rolled me over, injected steroids into my spine, returned me to bed and disappeared. An hour was gone. Just gone.

“Why are you crying?” the nurse asked. I took the Kleenex in shaking hands.

“I don’t know what happened,” was the only thing I could think of to say.

Have you experienced anesthesia? What did it feel like to you? Share your story in the comments, then scroll down to subscribe or keep up on Twitter