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Awake During Surgery

'Like torture' | St. Louis man says he was awake, unable to speak or move during surgery

Matt Caswell is filing a lawsuit against Washington University, an anesthesiologist, and a CRNA

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O'FALLON, Mo. ( -- It was supposed to be a routine surgery, but it's one a St. Louis man says he will remember the rest of his life. 

Imagine going under the knife and actually feeling the pain. Matt Caswell says it happened to him, and now he's filing a lawsuit against Washington University, the anesthesiologist, and the certified registered nurse anesthetist.

"It was like torture," Caswell recalled. 

Caswell's mother shot video of him following the procedure at a St. Charles County hospital in July of 2020. Caswell can be seen saying, "I want to get out of here," repeatedly following hernia surgery. Caswell told News 4 he expected to drift into an unconscious state under undergoing general anesthesia, but says that didn't occur. 

"I just remember the mask being put on my face...I knew I was in trouble when I felt the cold iodine hit my belly," he said.

Sitting in his lawyer's office, Caswell added, "At any second I was waiting to go out. All the sudden I got stabbed in my was like rusted razor blades. It was so bad." 

Caswell says there was a towel over his face, and he was unable to speak because he had already received an initial paralyzing agent prior to surgery. 

"He was paralyzed, couldn't move," added his attorney Ken Vuylsteke. "He was supposed to be given a mask over his face which was done. That mask contains what we would call the knockout gas, puts you under. That gas was not turned on by the anesthesiologist. They forgot," said Vuylsteke.

According to the lawsuit, Caswell could feel pain and hear everything being discussed in the operating room for at least 13 minutes. Vuylsteke says the medical professional should have realized Caswell was feeling pain based on his vital signs. 

"His heart rate went through the roof. His blood pressure went to what's called hypertensive crisis three, which happens right before you have a heart attack and continued for 13 minutes without noticing it," said Vuylsteke. 

Vuylsteke also provided medical notes written by the doctor following the surgery. In the notes it says, "A review of the anesthetic record demonstrates a delay in initiating inhalational anesthetic after induction of anesthesia." 

"Not only does his physical records prove the case, but they admit it," said Vuylsteke.

The medical notes add, "The patient and his mother were immediately informed regarding the delay initiating the inhaled anesthetic agent until after the start of the surgical procedure."

Dr. Dan Forest has been retained by Caswell's attorney as an expert witness in the case. Dr. Forest says cases like Caswell's are "not very common, but it does occur." He says Caswell experienced what's known as intraoperative awareness and that most cases are due to equipment failure, not the medical professional forgetting to turn on the equipment. 

"I think what's important is that patients speak with the anesthesiologist prior to surgery to better understand what to expect," said Dr. Forest.

During some procedures, some patients might hear conversation or be aware of what's happening depending on the level of sedation. He added and said under general anesthesia the goal is to keep the patient unconscious and unable to remember the procedure.

"It was so scary I thought I was having a heart attack," remembers Caswell.

A lawyer representing Washington University, the doctor, and the CRNA sent News 4 this statement regarding the lawsuit:

Washington University’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation matters and is also prevented from commenting due to HIPAA protections afforded Mr. Caswell.

If you would like to read the lawsuit, click here to see the petition.

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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