CHARLESTON, W.Va. – In the two weeks before he committed suicide, Sherman Sizemore thought people were trying to bury him alive.
Family members say the 73-year-old Baptist minister was driven to kill himself by the traumatic experience of being awake during surgery but unable to move or cry out in pain.
Sizemore’s death has drawn attention to a little-discussed phenomenon called anesthesia awareness that some experts say may happen to 20,000 to 40,000 patients a year in this country. Typically they feel pain, pressure or other discomfort during surgery because they are not adequately anesthetized.
The causes can include doctor errors, faulty equipment or medical conditions so severe that the patient cannot be safely put under deep anesthesia.
“It’s the first time I know of anyone succeeding in taking their own lives because of this, but suicidal thoughts are not all that uncommon” among such patients, said Carol Weihrer, president of the Virginia-based Anesthesia Awareness Campaign, which she founded after her own experience with anesthesia awareness.
Sizemore, a clergyman and former coal miner from the town of Beckley, was admitted to Raleigh General Hospital on Jan. 19, 2006, for exploratory surgery to diagnose the cause of abdominal pain, according to a lawsuit filed March 13.
An anesthesiologist and nurse anesthetist who worked for Raleigh Anesthesia Associates gave Sizemore paralyzing drugs to prevent his muscles from jerking and twitching during the surgery, the complaint alleges. But it says they failed to give him general anesthesia to render him unconscious until 16 minutes after the first cut into his abdomen. The family says he suffered excruciating pain.
Moreover, the lawsuit says, Sizemore was never told that he hadn’t been properly anesthetized, and was tormented by doubts about whether his memories were real.
The lawsuit, filed against Raleigh Anesthesia Associates by two of his daughters, goes on to say that in the two weeks after his surgery, Sizemore couldn’t sleep, refused to be left alone, suffered nightmares and complained people were trying to bury him alive.
On Feb. 2, 2006, Sizemore shot himself to death. His family says he had no history of psychological distress before his surgery. The abdominal pains were apparently related to gall bladder problems, according to the family.
Calls to Raleigh Anesthesia Associates were referred to a lawyer who had no comment Monday.