Donna Penner could still hear the usual banging sounds of the operating room when she woke up after surgery. She was completely relaxed — relieved it was over — when she heard two words that froze her heart.
It was 2008 in Manitoba, Canada, and 44-year-old Donna was in surgery to discover why she was having heavy bleeding during her periods. The operation involved three or four small incisions in her abdomen, according to her account to the BBC.
But what started out as a normal procedure turned into a nightmare that would scar Donna long past the recovery date.
Originally, Donna drifted to sleep from the anaesthesia like normal, but when she heard those two words from the surgeon, Donna realized the horrifying truth: she was waking up during surgery.
She couldn’t move or speak.
Although the anaesthetic hadn’t worked, the paralytic had, which meant she could do nothing: speak, shout, cry, move or open her eyes.
“I felt him make the first incision. I don't have words to describe the pain — it was horrific,” Donna said.
Stuck and horrified, Donna could do nothing but lay in agony as the surgeon continued. She constantly prayed, sung to herself and thought of her husband and children to try to take her mind off of the pain.
“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,” Donna said in her interview for Outlook on the BBC World Service. “I felt him moving my organs around as he explored. I heard him say things like, 'Look at her appendix, it's really nice and pink, colon looks good, ovary looks good.'"
To make matters worse, she was suffocating.
Patients who are given a paralytic like Donna (something common when working on abdominal muscles), are also given a breathing tube.
Donna’s heart rate was up to 148 beats per minute, but with the breathing tube, she could only have seven breaths every minute.
Her lungs felt like they were on fire.
All attempts to get the doctor’s attention backfired
This operation (and pain) went on for an hour-and-a-half. During that time Donna did all she could possibly do to get the attention of the surgeon. She managed to wiggle her foot, but it was never verbally acknowledged.
Finally she realized she could move her tongue!
The anesthesiologist noticed her playing with the breathing tube in her throat and, thinking the paralytic had worn off, removed the tube.
Now, Donna couldn’t breathe at all.
But then something miraculous happened.
In the middle of this unendurable agony, Donna died. She left her body.
Donna is a Christian, and said that she wasn’t necessarily in heaven, but it wasn’t earth. This is how she describes it:
“It was quiet. The sounds of the operating room were in the background, I could still hear them. But it sounded as though they were very, very far away.
"The fear was gone, the pain was gone. I felt warm, I felt comforted and I felt safe. And instinctively I knew I was not alone. 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.’”
Donna begged the presence to let her die.
The pain and horror she left behind on the operating table was too much. She didn’t want to return.
But as quickly as she left her body, she came back. The operating room was loud — the nurses were shouting at her to breathe. Eventually, they manually forced air into her lungs and Donna’s lungs received sweet relief.
Donna’s recovery and retaliation
When Donna told the surgeon what had happened, he was horrified. His eyes filled with tears, as he took her hands in his and apologized.
Donna was deeply traumatized, and went directly to a therapist. She couldn’t remember what day of the week it was on her first appointment, because she was so affected from the disaster.
One patient in about every 19,600 surgeries will wake up during surgery, and women are more likely to experience this than men, according to a 2014 study. Unlike Donna’s experience however, most of these patients (about 75 percent) are only awake for less than five minutes, according to CNN.
Now, nine years later, she tells her story. She doesn’t want to point fingers. She only tells her story to increase understanding.
She occasionally tells her story to anesthesiology residents. She said there are usually several who tear up as she speaks to them.
“I want to raise awareness, and help something good come out of this awful experience,” Donna said.