Blood, sweat and tears: my dates with anesthesia

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



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  1. Since I was present for most of these I can only say that I wish I could have taken the pain for you – except maybe the back spasms :-/ Sorry about those genes….

  2. Yes, for my second root canal. I will never have a dental procedure like that without it again. The two epidurals I had for back pain in 1999 (I think) were with a local anesthetic, though. It was kind of scary. And it didn’t work. I really hope yours did!

    Mean, mean, bad urologist…

    • As I have written before, I think the whole urology profession attracts some particularly cold characters.

      The epidural and steroids I had in my back seemed to have helped somewhat – downgraded from agony to pain, anyway, as long as I move r-e-a-ll-y carefully and stay in bed most of the day…I can stand and walk on my own now though, which was impossible last week.

  3. I had anesthesia twice for colonoscopies. It was wonderful both time. I felt like you did in that just as I was getting ready to be anesthetized, it was already over. And I felt soooooo good. I guess the feeling was that of a high!! Except for the procedures one must go through the night before…I’d have that kind of anesthesia over and over LOL!!!

    • That’s so funny – I don’t like anything about the process. The IVs are always so painful and usually get botched, the drugs sting like hell, and I hate giving up control of what’s going on around me. Then I’m a mess when I wake up. I always just want to get home as soon as possible but I guess everyone can relate to that.

    • I second the greatness of the colonoscopy anesthesia. Both times I’ve had a colonoscopy, I remembered absolutely nothing about the procedure, but the groggy, giddy feeling of waking up was awesome and hilarious for some reason. Everything seemed amusing, like a clever British comedy. According to my husband, I also said some pretty lewd things that I have no recollection of.

      I think someone should do a documentary of a colonoscopy recovery room. It probably makes way more sense to the anesthetized, though.

      • I wish I could have a goofy revival experience! I always seem to feel like death when I come out from under anesthesia. I’m spaced-out, exhausted and gloomy for the rest of the day. Granted, almost every time I’ve had to go under, it was because of some pressing and painful health problem that was making me feel pretty shitty anyway. But if I went in feeling fine to get knocked out, maybe it’d be different?

  4. 1st “knock out” experience for me was a double wisdom tooth extraction. 9:00 a.m. they gave me enough to put me in “twilight sleep” – I woke up at 4:30 because a nurse (or someone dressed in white) was smacking my face and saying “We gotta wake her up and get her the heck out of here. I want to go home.” I threw up on her shoes, and again in the elevator and again in my parent’s car on the way home. In my file it says “extremely sensitive to anesthesia” now. My current issue is to get ANYONE to believe me when I tell them that. Once for a D&C the anesthesiologist told me I had gone lights out after the third drop, which was less than he would have given a toddler. For him I only gagged once or twice.

    Now I beg the dentist to skip Novocaine and just get on with it. I did 4 births with no help, of 10 lb+ kids – 22 hours each time, I guess I can survive a filling if it takes him 1/2 hour.

    Hope you feel a lot better very soon.

    • Wow, what an experience. I can relate to the wisdom teeth story a bit, though mine wasn’t nearly as bad. I had all four out on the same day, and I remember lying on some kind of couch in their office trying to wake up, and they kept trying to get me to stand up and I was too woozy – the anesthetic had me under for much longer than they wanted and they were clearly impatient. But geez, what can you do? My thing in hospitals and clinics is convincing phlebotomists that my veins really are tough to find. Everyone tries to brush me off and just sit down and stick me, and then ends up digging around under my skin until the vein on one side is totally busted and they have to do the other arm/hand. A week and a half after the latest ER visit and the backs of both hands are still purple.

      Power to you on the natural births! I can understand that choice – even if I’m in agony, I don’t want narcotics, b/c I know it’ll just make everything worse. It’s better to cope without.

    • I totally understand….local anesthetic does not work on me at all …..NO ONE believes me and I just had to endure a failed biopsy because of it. I could feel it all and then them stitching me up……the Dr couldn’t believe it and he does the biopsies all the time and had given me the maximum dose of local he could!
      Now the Dr’s believe me and I’m never going to do it again.
      If they can’t knock me out its a NO!!
      I’m amazed I had to fight and still put up with them looking at me like I’m just anxious and neurotic.
      It’s not common but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real!!!

      • That sounds horrible about the biopsy — sorry you had to go through that, and whatever larger health ordeal led to the biopsy. Thanks for reading and sharing your story.

        Fortunately local anesthetics do work on me. I could build an altar to Lidocaine. The thing that usually surprises my doctors is the small amount of medication that is effective for me.

  5. My experience with coming out of anesthesia left me sobbing uncontrollably, and the only thing I could say later to explain it to myself was that I had disappeared….and then I had to come back again and *know* that I had disappeared. It’s making my eyes prickle even now to remember it. Many years later I worked with some people with varying degrees of psyche dissociation, and years after that unearthed and re-associated a dissociated part of myself. The agony of becoming conscious of the degree of outer-darkness disappearance that dissociation is–is indescribable. But I think anesthesia gives some people a taste.

    • That’s really interesting. My latest bout of anesthesia was, I think, really unsettling for how seamlessly it removed me from my life and then dropped me back in. It made consciousness and control seem to arbitrary and tenuous, that someone could just shoot a drug into my arm and then make my mind disappear. Even though I was in agonizing pain at the time and badly wanted a release from it, that sensation of coming back to myself without even realizing what had happened to my body was profoundly unsettling.

  6. When I was 15, they put me under for DES-deaughter-related surgery and what I remember was regaining consciousness before I regained an awareness of who I was. I was alive and thinking and trying to figure out who the hell “I” was. This was quite a puzzle and it took me a good long time to regain my sense of self. No crying, but this was back in the 60s, I’m sure its different now.

  7. I experienced anesthesia-induced, gravity-defying lethargy for three days after going “under” for eye surgery. Not drama, no tears, no hallucinations, just the peaceful inability to move for 72 hours.

    • Glad it was peaceful, at least. Funny how unpredictable these things are. Before I went under again today I told the nurses I apologized in advance for anything weird I’d do or say after waking up, including weeping for no reason. Let’s just say I was right to do so.

  8. I just had 4 wisdom teeth removed yesterday and had a terrible experience with the anesthesia. I woke up crying, confused, and sort of panicking. I can remember the dentists telling me to take deep breaths and calm down which helped in transients. I hardly remember much from the time the anesthesia kicked in to maybe halfway through the car ride. I do remember crying and panicky and emotional. I also faintly remember my hands shaking. Not only that but the IV was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt.

    • Ugh, sorry you had such a rotten experience. I remember having my wisdom teeth out, with a lot of the same problems you describe. It was worse than I thought it’d be! But I survived.

      IV’s are tough, too. I think the the worst IV I’ve ever had was when they knocked me out w/ propofol without giving me a shot of Lidocaine first. Holy cow — thought the inside of my arm was on fire. Feel better!

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