Stacey Gustafson is suing her anesthesia team after she woke up in the middle of her hernia operation. The 34-year-old said she experienced agonizing pain during the operation because she wasn’t given enough anesthesia and pain relief. She remained conscious and alert throughout the entire 35-minute procedure in what could be described as a waking nightmare.
Gustafson compared the experience to a horror film. She says she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and regularly experiences triggering flashbacks. The mother-of-one recently decided not to have more children, because she fears having to go under the knife for an emergency C-section.
Her medical records show that she went in for a hernia operation at the Rose Medical Center in Denver, CO, on October 2, 2019. The staff acknowledged at the time that her propofol IV wasn’t properly connected during the procedure.
However, the U.S. Anesthesia Partners of Colorado, the company that employs the two anesthetists responsible for prepping Gustafson for surgery, has denied any wrongdoing and will be “defending this case vigorously” in court.
According to Gustafson, the medical team told her that they had to disconnect her propofol IV to administer anti-nausea medication, but they failed to reconnect the line afterwards.
“It was just complete black,” she recalled. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk. I was basically paralyzed, lying on the table. I felt a really sharp pain in my abdomen, which felt like I was being cut. I could hear the doctor, the surgeon, it sounded like he was giving instructions to somebody. I could feel everything—it was pulling, ripping, burning. And the only way I can think to describe it is just feeling like my insides were being ripped out.”
With the propofol IV disconnected, Gustafson said the anesthetic fluid poured out on her bed, soaking her pillow while she was left in agonizing pain.
She also received a medication that temporarily paralyzed her, leaving her unable to cry for help while the doctors started cutting into her.
Gustafson remembers trying to move her hands and feet, but nothing happened.
“I could hear everything in the room. I heard somebody told a joke about a truck driver at one point, but then the pain brought my attention away from that,” she said. “And then at another point I thought how when you have a baby, they tell you ‘Breathe deep,’ that’s how you get through the pain, so I tried to do that, but I couldn’t breathe [on my own] because I was intubated and so I wasn’t able to do that.”
She described what it was like losing control of her body.
“I had a moment of panic and a complete freak-out because I couldn’t do anything. I was super anxious and panicking, [thinking] ‘What do I do to get through this?’” she added. “I just kept lying there shaking my head back and forth, hoping they would realize that I was awake and aware and could feel everything. To me, I thought I was shaking my head vigorously but apparently it was very small movements.”
Records show that the procedure started at 2:20 PM local time and at around 2:42, the staff noticed “purposeful movement with head”. The doctors pulled off her eye tape to look at her face but didn’t see any signs of consciousness. They administered an “inhalation agent” and proceeded with the surgery for another 13 minutes.
“When I was paralyzed, going through it, I didn’t have a sense of how long it was, other than it seemed like it was lasting a lifetime, it seemed never-ending,” Gustafson said.
Towards the end of the operation, the team noticed IV fluid collecting on the bed.
“14:55 pt [patient] pillow wet, propofol infusion discovered not connected. Propofol infusion connected… [Patient told staff after surgery] she did remember pain and knew something was wrong,” her medical records note.
She remembers waking up in the recovery center weeping as the staff explained what happened to her. Gustafson claims they told her the IV was disconnected. They then gave her another form of medication.
According to the lawsuit recently filed in court, “Mrs. Gustafson was fully aware of what was happening to her and around her and could feel everything being done to her body in the surgery. Mrs. Gustafson could feel the surgeon operating within her abdomen and suffered from excruciating pain without anything to dull it… Mrs. Gustafson endured approximately 35 minutes of the hernia operation, completely aware and unable to communicate.”
“As a direct and proximate result of the defendants’ negligence, Mrs. Gustafson has suffered and will continue to suffer injuries, damages, and losses, including, but not limited to, severe emotional trauma,” the complaint adds.
Talking with reporters, Gustafson said she still feels the lingering effects of the surgery.
“We’re two and a half years out since the surgery, and it affects me every day… I have PTSD from it. I still have nightmares. I get daily flashbacks. This is something that I needed professional help with, so I started therapy,” she said. “The flashbacks are really strange, in that sometimes I don’t know why I have a flashback to it… it seems like there’s no rhyme or reason to what the flashbacks are.”
She said her PTSD is having an effect on her personal relationships as well.
“My poor husband has to deal with the PTSD. Before, it took a lot to upset me. I was pretty go-with-the-flow, and that’s changed. With my husband and my daughter, I get irritable, and I may snap,” she explained. “If I’m having a really hard day, and I need to cry, I will go in my closet and shut the door so my daughter can’t see me. And she doesn’t totally know what’s happened, we’ve kept her pretty away from it, but she knows that something is not right. It’s not fair to her.
At this point, she doesn’t know what she would do if she needed another surgery in the future.
“I don’t know how I would do it. But there were other surgeries at one time I would have wanted. I would have loved to have a tummy tuck—I lost a bunch of weight. And so that was my plan, but not in this universe would I ever do that [now].
She and her husband have also decided not to have more children.
“We wanted to have more children, and mentally I couldn’t put myself through it. There’s a chance I could have a C-section, and if I had a C-section, I would have to have an anesthesiologist and the trust there is gone. Which is the hardest part too. I should be able to trust the medical industry, but now there is just an inherent mistrust.”
The company continues to defend itself. Tony Goodwin, Vice President of U.S. Anesthesia Partners, said, “USAP provides excellent anesthesia care for approximately 225,000 patients in Colorado each year. Our over 500 clinicians in Colorado are focused on one thing—patient safety.”
The trial is scheduled for July 18.
In the meantime, Gustafson says living with the aftermath can be lonely and demoralizing.
“The other thing is, as I’ve gone through this, I have been searching for somebody that I can relate to, who’s going through it. Because that was one of the hardest things. You feel very lonely going through this because it’s not something that happens a lot. And it would just be helpful to know that somebody else is out there. So, for anybody [else] who goes through it, they won’t feel like they’re the only person.”