How do you get over almost dying?
December 23, 2006 9:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I get past almost dying? Much much more inside

I had surgery on the 22nd, minor gynecological surgery. The surgery itself was quick, easy with no problems, other than an IV line issue. During the surgery they were pushing the drugs through my one IV and it clogged. They gave me one in the other arm and continued my anesthesia that way.

After the surgery while in recovery, I told the nurse I was about to be sick. She grabbed some Phenergan, attached it and opened the line and just barely started pushing it. Then, my arms started to shake, then I was unable to control them. I started to have trouble breathing, told them I was, and they told me "Calm down, you're just nervous"

Within 30 seconds, I could no longer breath or hold myself upright, my last thoughts were that I would never see my husband again, I pitched forward and passed out.

The next thing I remember is waking up with an ambubag on my face and trying to move but, being unable to do so. Eventually I came back around completely and was able to move my body again.

I was told that the line were the Phenergan was given was never flushed of the paralytic drug and that when she opened the line I was reparalyzed. Luckily, it happened in recovery where they could reverse it.

I was bagged for over thirty minutes, given the reversal drugs and was on oxygen for several hours.

Now, I'm a wreck. I'm recovering from the surgery, so should be resting more but, I can't stay asleep long. I keep waking up, in a cold sweat, scared to death. I close my eyes and all I can think about is what almost happened.

The nurse, doctors, residents were all very forthcoming with everything that happened from how low my O2 sat rate dropped to what all they did. I have the anesthesologist's phone number in case I have any other questions.

How do I get over this though? How do I make myself able to sleep and not feel the horror of not being able to breathe hit me again?

And how do I help my husband deal with this? He's having a very difficult time as well but, isn't likely to ask for help.
posted by SuzySmith to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does the hospital have any resources for such events? It sounds like it might be similar to PTSD, but IANAD.
posted by SirStan at 9:17 PM on December 23, 2006

18 months ago, just two months after we married and moved to Korea, my husband was hit on his motorcycle by a driver who ran a red light. He suffered a several concussion, broke his ankle and had a major laceration to his scalp. Luckily, he was wearing full riding gear, including a helmet and body armor. Witnesses said he flew 30 feet across the road.

When I got to the ER he was still bleeding from the head and was in shock. He kept asking where I was even though I was standing right beside him, holding his hand. He couldn't even remember if I was on the bike with him when it happened.

Since we had just moved out of our home country, I didn't know a soul in Korea and had no use of the language whatsoever. I couldn't get any answers from doctors or nurses.

He ended up staying in the hospital for more than a month. He had what was supposed to be routine surgery to fix his ankle but got a staph infection afterwards. I spent every night on a cot by his bed and was terrified to even go home for a shower because all I could think of was that the only way to keep him safe was to never leave his side.

Needless to say, I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. For months afterward, I was paralyzed by anxiety, thoughts of what if. What if he hadn't had his helmet — I'd be a widow by now. What if his foot gets infected again and he loses it. What if I hadn't have been in Korea with him. What if he loses his job for missing so much work.

The trouble with anxiety is that even though you know *rationally* that these "what ifs" are unlikely, once you get into that mode of thinking, it just spirals out of control. I finally decided I needed to get help, but I didn't have the resources for counseling or therapy. I'm also not very religious, though I was thanking God nearly every day that my husband was eventually okay.

Instead, I read as much as I possibly could on the subject of anxiety, mostly online. The number one thing that helped me was this:

There is no reason to worry about things you have no control over, because you have no control over them. There is no reason to worry about things you DO have control over either, because since you have control over them you can take action change the outcome.

I hope this helps.
posted by Brittanie at 9:28 PM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

IAAD, and it is PTSD.
posted by neuron at 9:34 PM on December 23, 2006

I've had a couple of medical jaunts that went awry. They are more common than the medical folks would like to admit, and a lot of people never knew that they, say, stopped breathing during the general. I suppose my most memorable was a spinal tap that went bad, bad, bad. Nothing like going into shock in a restaurant and having your limbs curl up, tunnel vision, etc. Afterwards, I just had a few quiet moments to deeply reaffirm my belief that human beings are idiots, remember that CPAs have an IQ that's an average of five points higher than MDs, got over my anger, and went on. It reached the "just a funny story" after a couple of weeks. I'm not sure what your personal philosophy is, but mine is that I'm a big swirl of atoms that will roughly self-perpetuate for a while, and that tends to make things seem a lot less important.
posted by adipocere at 9:37 PM on December 23, 2006

In my case, I don't think much on what happened (a heart attack), but I do worry about it happening again. Nearly any discomfort is symptomatologically similar enough to heart attack symptoms to make me worry it's a sign of an impending attack: low blood sugar from skipping a meal, high blood pressure from anxiety/stress/coffee/cigarettes, "heart" burn, gas, dry mouth, lack of sleep, muscle pain in the chest or back or my left arm, and as in your case, not being able to breathe.

So far, despite being convinced many times I was about to have another MI, I haven't. The only two things I've learned to do is soldier through, and do things that convince me I can't possibly be having a heart attack, such as vigorously walking. (If I were having a heart attack, I know from experience I wouldn't be able to move vigorously, so doing so is reassuring.)

Your case is a bit simpler to effectively deny; in the normal course of life you're not going to be being injected with paralytics. So concentrate on that: you know what caused the problem, and you that you won't be injected with it again (short of another surgery). Remind yourself that you're otherwise healthy, and that you have little reason for anxiety.

Take comfort in knowing your body will (usually) alert you if you are having problems; a great comfort to me is that a heart attack is (usually, anyway) very very painful, and as long as I'm not in terrible pain, I'm probably not having a heart attack. In your case, as long as you can move, you're probably OK. I too sometimes have problems getting to sleep, worried that I might not wake up; I take great comfort in knowing that the pain of a heart attack would probably wake me up.

So, soldier on, reflect on your general healthiness and the unlikeliness of a repeat of the paralyzation.
posted by orthogonality at 9:39 PM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

and PTSD is a long and difficult recovery.
posted by brandz at 9:40 PM on December 23, 2006

Agreed on the PTSD. I had a less dramatic, but more drawn out, experience with doctors nearly killing me. My GP and my specialists agree that I've got PTSD from it. If you think about it, if someone had jumped you in a dark alley and brought you that near death, you'd expect to have PTSD from it. As far as your brain is concerned, this is no different. For the immediate future, you might ask a trusted doctor for something to help you relax and sleep (2 years later, I still need Xanax to deal with anxiety episodes). As soon as possible (and on the hospital's dime, preferably) get yourself and your husband to a shrink.
It does get better. It's terrifying now because it's just happened to you. But this is a totally normal response -- that knowledge alone helped me feel a bit better about things. And there are wonderful things mental health professionals can do these days, between cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications, and talk therapy. Time alone does help some people, but it can make others worse. This is something to take to the professionals.

Good luck, and I'm so sorry this happened to you.
posted by katemonster at 9:47 PM on December 23, 2006

SuzySmith, I am so sorry for your terrible experience. I hope that you are able to come to terms with it (and I'm sure you will). Anxiety can be crippling, my advice is to try to switch your though patterns as soon as you recognize that you are having the thoughts (reliving the experience, playing "what if", etc.) and instead, think about how great something else is. Good luck!

Adipocere, I had a similar experience after a LP, would be interested in any insights you have, aftereffects, etc. My email is in my profile.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 9:48 PM on December 23, 2006

I had a close call with the grim reaper myself last year, and it's entirely normal for you to feel vulnerability about something like this. After a head on collision with a car at 40 mph while riding on a scooter in Bermuda, I walked away with a dazed head and a scratched forearm.

Even though I emerged from a totally fucked up situtation in perfect (physical) health, I wasn't the same person for at least a couple of months or so. My advice is to talk to someone who has experience with this, perhaps a therapist. You'll be okay, but you should give yourself some time to deal with this.
posted by dhammond at 9:50 PM on December 23, 2006

There is a lot to bed said for dealing with trauma as soon after the event as possible. You need trauma counseling, and you need it RIGHT NOW.

The hospital should have someone on staff. Give them a call and go spend an hour or two talking to someone about this ASAP: it will save you a lot of grief in the long run.
posted by tkolar at 9:53 PM on December 23, 2006

when i was about 15 i was sucked out into the ocean by a strong undertow and nearly drowned.

for months after word, the event was never out of my mind , and i had reoccuring nightmares about drowning. that was 13 years ago but it changed my life, the way i look at the world, god, myself, family, everything.

i don't know when it started to happen , but one day i found myself thinking, 'how lucky i am , to have faced that and to still be here.' something like that , when it happens , it seems there is nothing good about it, but later you may find yourself grateful for it, because it's shaped who you are, and how you see the world.
you begin to understand how violent the world can be and even in the still moments, you can recall, calmly, something that once made you quake, with distance and with cool knowledge of what it meant to you, then and now.

you have been given a poisoned gift. don't fight the fear , you will out last it, and when it's gone , you will have a clarity about life you did not have before. good luck.
posted by nola at 9:54 PM on December 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

Perhaps talking to a therapist would be a good idea, but the shock of it may never fully leave you. My only real close brush with death was nearly driving in front of a truck that ran a red light (I would NOT have survived the impact).

It seemed like nothing much at the time, but as I realised what I had really avoided only by chance I had a deep horror set in.

The thing that will help you best is time. As someone who suffered childhood asthma, I have some understaing of the horror of not being able to breathe, and I am sure this is causing you some real stress.

You're in the happy position that this is not something that may randomly happen to you, unlike people I know who have suffered anaphylatic shock for no apparent reason and have come within minutes of death.

Best wishes for your recovery!
posted by tomble at 9:54 PM on December 23, 2006

Well it's not PTSD; that's just silly. PTSD develops months to years after a life-threatening trauma, not 1 day after.

What you're going through now is a period called 'adjustment'. Your reactions and thoughts during this time are helping you to integrate your recent experience with beliefs and unspoken assumptions that you've held for a long time. For a young person, this might be your first real brush with mortality; that's always life-changing.

It might be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional while getting through this rough phase. Sometimes a little guidance helps straighten out a rocky path.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:11 PM on December 23, 2006

I'm not sure it's "silly", ikkyu, as several studies address "immediate onset" PTSD, which in this study is "defined as starting on the same day as the upsetting experience". Sounds to me like SuzySmith and husband could very easily have it.
From what I can see, few doctors will give a firm diagnosis until symptoms last a month or more, but it's entirely possible for PTSD symptoms to present immediately.
posted by katemonster at 10:24 PM on December 23, 2006

Aren't there two kinds of PTSD, ikkyu2?
posted by QIbHom at 10:33 PM on December 23, 2006

Criteria for PTSD. The trouble has to persist for at least 1 month. The poster's problem has lasted 1 day.

If you don't care what PTSD actually is, and you want to say that the poster has PTSD, why not say that she has snake-defenestrating festival phobia behavior syndrome? Never mind what S-DFPBS actually is, we'll just say she has it.

More to the point, the psyche handles 1-day-old traumas differently than it handles months-old traumas.

Also more to the point, what is the purpose of terrifying someone who is already in some distress, by instructing them that they have a debilitating, serious mental illness likely to persist for months or years, when in fact that is in no way true and is also demonstrably false? Can this be justified in any way?


People should be careful and thoughtful, and should not shoot their mouths off at random about topics of which they are woefully ill-informed.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:35 PM on December 23, 2006 [10 favorites]

ikkyu, I don't think it's going to help anyone to turn this into a flame-fest, so I'll just say this. It seems to me almost everyone who thought it might be PTSD -- and most of the people who didn't mention it -- suggested that SuzySmith talk to a professional about this situation. That's exactly what you yourself suggested.

I am not a doctor. I'm merely a person who's had certain medical experiences and was relating them to someone who, I trust, knows better than to take a diagnosis from people giving free advice online. I still think PTSD is a possibility for SuzySmith, though I very much hope you're right and it's merely transitory. Either way, the common thread through most comments is that there are people trained to help her, and she should take advantage of that.

I'm out.
posted by katemonster at 10:52 PM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

SusySmith, I don't know if it helps, but worse things really do happen, fairly regularly, and you were probably, medically speaking, a long way from dying. It takes several minutes of oxygen deprivation to create permanent damage in the brain, and a few more to cause death. From what you've posted, you felt the paralytic, had the kind of panic attack that losing control of your body to anesthetics sometimes induces, and then your blood oxygen went down and your carbon dioxide came up, and your brain started screaming "BREATHE!" but you couldn't, and that made the panic worse.

Happens to a lot of people, during the induction phase of a general anesthetic, too. But worse things, still, really do happen as a result of anaethetisia.

Like waking up in the middle of an operation, while still paralyzed and on a respirator. Feeling surgeons cutting on your body, pushing your organs around, but being utterly unable to let them know you are anaesthetically aware. Happens to about 1 in 1000 surgical patients. Not fun, and excruciatingly memorable, since when this happens, any hypnotic component of the anaesthetisia has usually dropped out, too. I speak from personal experience.

So, start putting this out of your mind by telling yourself how incredibly fortunate you were that if this was to happen to you, that you suffered no lasting damage as a result, and were cared for promptly and correctly afterwards, and that the mis-application of anesthesia didn't result in lengthy and acute suffering for you. And get on with recovery and life. And if you need surgical care in the future, face it with courage and hope, and be glad you live in a time when you have the miracle of anaesthestia, however imperfect that miracle may be.
posted by paulsc at 10:55 PM on December 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

"There is a lot to bed said for dealing with trauma as soon after the event as possible. You need trauma counseling, and you need it RIGHT NOW."

But there's a lot to be said for *not* dealing with it right now. That's a common thought about CISD - that it forces people to drag out & relive information that they really might not be ready to deal with just yet.

SuzySmith: By all means, go ahead and speak with a mental health professional. But don't be to overly concerned with PTSD just yet.
ikkyu2 isn't speaking bs, either. Take it slowly, and when you're ready, talk about the situation. Since you're here telling us about it, you're already able & willing to talk about it, and that's a good start.

//Fairly recently had a big long conversation with other medical professionals about CISD & PTSD.
posted by drstein at 11:01 PM on December 23, 2006

I think interacting with other people who've recovered from similar situations will help.
posted by spiderskull at 12:36 AM on December 24, 2006

"There is a lot to bed said for dealing with trauma as soon after the event as possible. You need trauma counseling, and you need it RIGHT NOW."

Whoa. The Royal Society recently had a debate on the worst ideas in psychiatry ever, and post-trauma counselling was one of them. (Source.)

Retraumatising yourself by raking it over is unlikely to be the best thing right now. What you are feeling is ENTIRELY normal, even if it doesn't feel OK. Don't give yourself a hard time for having trouble. It's hard to even wrap your head around something like that, let alone begin to cope with it. I'd still be a gibbering wreck in your shoes, never mind being able to post my feelings as articulately as you have done. I know that doesn't help what you're feeling right now - and maybe you could see a health professional and get some treatment for the short term while your mind and body sort themselves out (which they will, I assure you). If only so you can sleep. There's a lot to be said for sleep.

If you're still having problems in a month or two - flashbacks, panic attacks, etc - then is the time to contemplate the possibility of PTSD, with the help of an appropriate health professional. But right now I'd say you're doing pretty well under the circumstances.

At least make sure your body is looked after - maybe your husband can help you, make sure you're eating and drinking properly and generally look after you? These things do count. He probably felt utterly useless and helpless while all this happened to you, and maybe he still does (on top of the psychological trauma of nearly losing you) - don't push him away. He might not want to say much about his own state of mind for fear of trivialising yours - just make sure he knows it's OK to discuss it, or just for him to be upset. You can help each other through this, I'm sure of it.
posted by terrynutkins at 4:06 AM on December 24, 2006

Do you think a lawsuit would make you feel better? Otherwise just get over it and be happy that you got out of the hospital alive, that's always something to be thankful for.
posted by JamesMessick at 5:20 AM on December 24, 2006

I'm now on my third experience in the category of "would be dead/disabled without modern medicine."

It is scary and it is life-changing. It will also fade with time and leave you with a little more understanding. My first experience was the one that handed me an engraved card that read, "You are indeed mortal." You don't look into the void without the void looking back into you.

I thought a lot about my experience, was sad and scared, and got the resolve to fight the muscle atrophy, learn how to use a walker, and teach my legs how to move again.

You can get through this and you will. You will probably find that you love those close to you even more.
posted by plinth at 6:17 AM on December 24, 2006

What you need is closure. Either you can provide it yourself through anxiety-coping mechanisms, a therapist helps guide you to find it, or you find it in a lawyer's office.
posted by Merdryn at 7:13 AM on December 24, 2006

Definitely seek some therapeutic help, but note that anxiety is often a side effect of anasthesia and pain medication. Once those meds get out of your system you may be able to rest more easily. Good luck.
posted by macadamiaranch at 8:33 AM on December 24, 2006

but note that anxiety is often a side effect of anasthesia and pain medication. Once those meds get out of your system you may be able to rest more easily.

Since when do opiates and sedatives cause anxiety?
posted by docpops at 8:38 AM on December 24, 2006

or you find it in a lawyer's office.

Hear, hear. Nothing screams closure and peace like a four-year legal slog.
posted by docpops at 8:39 AM on December 24, 2006

It's indeed possible that right now the poster is more fearful of the possibility that her immediate feelings of mortality and fear won't fade over time, and the only way to see if that's true is to let time pass. Since no one here has a clue about the the poster's relative psychological robustness and coping/processing skills, there's no way to know except to say that this was a horrific trauma and that prior functional status is generally the best predictor of future success. The challenge may be to come to terms with the horrific randomness of the event and to learn to trust the medical realm again, which won't be easy. I think you are fortunate to have had a forthright medical team. Most people can get past traumatic events, I find, but few people ever escape bitterness and anger when they are lied to or not talked to openly.

But as other posters have said, few things impart a joy and love of the mundane banality of life like the real experience of almost seeing it taken from you. That, for better or worse, is an ironic treasure.
posted by docpops at 8:47 AM on December 24, 2006

Since when do opiates and sedatives cause anxiety?

I guess you have never met a recovering heroin junkie.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:49 AM on December 24, 2006


You are kidding, right? The opiate isn't causing the anxiety, as I suspect you know. Coming out of anaesthesia or five days of vicodin for a back injury won't either. Now, lots of people with underlying anxiety disorders may be more anxious if they come off of an anxiolytic, like alcohol, or opiates. And opiate withdrawl is a total suckfest from what I can tell, but that has zero relevance to the original comment.

The original post implied that opiates and anaesthesia commonly cause anxiety in the average recipient, which doesn't mesh at all with real world scenarios and is an irresponsible comment.
posted by docpops at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2006

I had a very serious motorcycle accident a number of years ago and I suffered similar effects afterward. I ended up in the hospital one evening after a panic attack caused me to hyperventilate and think I was having a heart attack. I had trouble falling asleep, too.

My doctor and I discussed possible treatments, which included anti-anxiety meds, and we settled on breath control/meditation. I continued to have the attacks for months but I was able to keep them from getting out of control. You and your doctor should have a similar discussion. It doesn't have to rule your life.
posted by tommasz at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2006

pain, opiates, sedatives, pain medication, and the constipation they cause, all DO cause anxiety. speaking from personal experience.

suzysmith, i think paulsc's post is right on the money. yes, something scary happened to you, but also remember that a lot of the reason it felt so bad in the first place is that you were in a scary, unfamilar position. i've woken up in recovery rooms myself, after surgery that went just fine, and it was still terrifying and panic-inducing. having an actual medical problem and panicking because of it -- i can certainly imagine how scary and awful that must have felt.

but just because it FELT scary and awful, doesn't mean it WAS scary and awful.

maybe it would help to think of yourself in that situaton as a child getting a broken bone set.

children are naive to the world- they've never been in a hospital emergency room, never had a strange man in weird clothing poke and prod them, and a child with a broken bone never felt so much pain for so long. when the strange man gives their arm a sharp tug to set the bone, it HURTS. and the child feels traumatized and awful and screams and panics and freaks out.

but as adults, you and i both know that the child's broken arm- while not good- isn't that bad, either. and that it's a fairly routine medical procedure to set a broken bone. now imagine if the doctor's hand slips, and he gives that broken arm a good crunch- well, it will hurt more, and maybe cause a bit of damage to blood vessels, and the kid will scream and freak out and it's unfortunate and painful-- but we also know that it's not that big a deal. in the end, the bone will set and be ok. and the kid will probably be a bit traumatized about doctors- she sure had a rough day for a little kid- but basically ok.

and most of all, remember that there are lots of ways to help a kid process the day's events. if that kid's parents say "ooh, that was scary, let me kiss it better and here's a popsicle and what should we do tonight? rent a movie? good idea. you choose which one!", that kid will recover way faster than the kid whose parents ask metafilter if their kid's arm will be permanently disfigured, and metafilter starts dispensing long-term prognoses about post-traumatic stress syndrome.


you had an unpleasant thing happen in an unpleasant context, so what should just feel unpleasant instead feels terrible. in my opinion, you will best help yourself by reminding yourself that the context skewed your perceptions, and that now you're gonna be ok.

please also remind yourself that metafilter is a bad context for reassurance. my advice is to eat some popsicles and go rent a movie: tonight you get to choose.
feel better soon!
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:20 AM on December 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

humor. I've always said humor is the greatest defence. Try to laugh it off.
posted by Kudos at 11:52 AM on December 24, 2006

I very nearly bled to death during double-jaw surgery almost exactly two years ago (turns out I have not one but two mild forms of hemophilia, which had gone undiagnosed for 35+ years!). My way of dealing with it (on top of the awfulness of recovery in general) was to look at it from paulsc's point of view -- I decided to be grateful and amazed that I didn't die. I decided to be grateful for the fact that despite my many other weird and rare medical conditions, I actually managed to be semi-normal for once and have a common blood type, so that the transfusions weren't a problem. I was grateful to have an amazing surgeon and support team of doctors and nurses who kept me alive. I was grateful that my body wasn't ready to go. I was grateful to have the love and well wishes of my friends and family as I recovered.

And now, a few years on, I'm grateful to have learned the lesson of my own mortality. I will not live forever. I could have died two years ago, or 20 years ago; I could die tomorrow. This has been a gift that made me reconsider the ways in which I want to live what life I do have left, whether it lasts another six months or six decades. I used to worry about being a famous writer, or having the perfect relationship, or being attractive. But nearly dying slowly made me realize how little those things matter. I started asking new questions: what qualities to I want to cultivate within myself and within my relationships? How do I want to leave the world, and the people I've known, when I do die? What really matters?

I don't have nearly all the answers, but I'm grateful to have gotten the chance to start seeking. In a funny way, nearly dying was one of the best things that ever happened in my life.
posted by scody at 1:19 PM on December 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

The day you collect your settlement check you will feel much better.
posted by spitbull at 3:43 PM on December 24, 2006

If I were in a similar situation first I would give myself a little while to get over it. If the problem persists and I need further closure I don't think I'd sue anybody but I would want to find out why exactly the issue occured. Not in an accusatory way, per se, but just to get a little reassurance from the people involved in the mishap that they realize the implications of doing their job well. They probably already know the implications, and accidents do happen, but I think you deserve to know that they know.
posted by dgeiser13 at 3:34 PM on December 25, 2006

Hear, hear. Nothing screams closure and peace like a four-year legal slog.

Nothing screams closure to me more than an apology, an out-of-court settlement from the malpractice insurance people to cover to therapy bill, and a big-ass trip to Hawaii to reconnect with the loved ones.
posted by frogan at 5:26 PM on December 25, 2006

docpops: "Since when do opiates and sedatives cause anxiety? [...] The original post implied that opiates and anaesthesia commonly cause anxiety in the average recipient, which doesn't mesh at all with real world scenarios and is an irresponsible comment.""

OK, perhaps I should have said "Anecdotally speaking, I have seen and experienced opiates and sedatives causing anxiety; I have first-and-second-hand experience with both of those things happening in people without other anxiety issues. But again, just an anecdote from personal experience and I hope you feel better and that you get advice and counsel from a trained professional." My apologies for not being more clear.
posted by macadamiaranch at 7:54 PM on December 25, 2006

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