Settlement Agreed For Woman Who 'Woke Up' While Being Prepared For Surgery

‘I Thought I Would Die’ Says Woman After NHS Staff Fail To Check Anaesthetic Machine


Dave Grimshaw, Press Officer | 0114 274 4397

A woman who suffered serious post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after ‘waking up’ just minutes before surgery to remove her appendix because staff failed to check that there was enough anaesthetic in a machine has called on the NHS Trust responsible to ensure lessons are learned from her ordeal.

Specialist medical lawyers at Irwin Mitchell have now secured an undisclosed-settlement for 36-year-old Alexandra Bythell, from Burnley, after the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust apologised and admitted that staff failed to check the levels on the anaesthetic machine leaving her panicking and fearing for her life as she awoke while being prepared for surgery.

Alexandra has struggled to return to work fully since the incident as she suffered from severe PTSD including flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and anxiety issues. The settlement secured by her lawyers at Irwin Mitchell will now cover her lost earnings and the therapy she has needed to help her manage her ongoing psychological problems.

Alexandra was first told by doctors at Burnley General Hospital she needed her appendix removing in September 2010 after suffering from abdominal pains whilst working as a Psychiatric Nurse. She was then transferred to Blackburn Hospital for the operation.

On the day of surgery she was taken to the anaesthetic room and told she would be put to sleep and that she should count backwards from 10. Alexandra remembers starting to count, but then believes she must have fallen asleep as the next thing she remembers is being wide awake while hospital staff were working around her, preparing for surgery.

Her eyes were taped over, she had breathing tubes in her throat and, believing she had woken up mid-surgery, she began to panic as she could hear machines beeping and hear the medical personnel talking around her.

She tried to alert the staff but she was unable to move because the drugs staff had administered paralysed her and she could hear them speaking about her size and weight. She then felt someone poking and prodding at her abdomen before there was a shout for more morphine and she fell back asleep.

Following the operation staff initially thought Alexandra had suffered a hallucination because of the drugs, before then blaming the machine for being faulty. A Critical Incident Report by the hospital later concluded that it was actually human error in not checking a vaporiser, which was empty, rather than a fault on the machine.

The anaesthetist subsequently wrote to Alexandra to apologise and the NHS Trust admitted they were at fault and that she had suffered ‘anaesthetic awareness’. This paved the way for Irwin Mitchell to secure Alexandra a settlement from East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust to help with her recovery, but expert psychological reports say she will have to deal with serious anxiety issues for the rest of her life.

Sarah Sharples, an expert medical lawyer at Irwin Mitchell leading the case, said: “What happened to Alexandra is totally unacceptable. This was supposed to be a routine surgical procedure and she should have woken up after surgery safe in the knowledge that everything had gone well and she would make a full recovery.

“Instead she woke up paralysed, thinking that she was actually in theatre and thinking that she was about to die. She was left distraught over what had happened and why she had effectively woken up. The experience has had a massive affect on Alexandra psychologically. She put her trust in NHS staff but sadly, on this occasion, she was let down.

“It is crucial that the NHS Trust learns from this mistake and ensures that it cannot happen again. This was not a faulty machine. This was a simple avoidable human error and it is crucial that systems are introduced to stop this happening again.”

Alexandra was off work for a few months, eventually returning to work in January 2011, as she sought help for her PTSD. She then had to learn to cope with panic attacks and feelings of anxiety on a daily basis. Throughout her recovery Alexandra has suffered a number of relapses leaving her unable to work for periods. As well as her problems with PTSD Alexandra also suffered from anxiety.

Alexandra said: “The whole incident was terrifying. The body isn’t prepared to be awake in those situations, I had tubes in my mouth and my eyes were taped up – I was hysterical with panic but completely unable to do anything about it. I thought I was in surgery already and I felt like I was going to die.

“Afterwards I tried to explain to the staff what happened but felt that I was being fobbed off with excuses and was constantly given the wrong information – first it was hallucinations, then it was a faulty machine. It was incredibly distressing to find out that this was all caused by somebody not checking the machine actually had gas in it.

“When it first happened I was absolutely traumatised. I just hope improvements are made to the anaesthetic process so they don’t let this happen to anyone else – I would hate for people to suffer what I have.”

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in Medical Negligence Claims.