What’s it like to wake up during oral surgery?

Austin Realtor Jason B. Long, now 36, had problems with his teeth growing up. By age 14, he’d lost all his baby teeth, but his eyeteeth were not coming in. His dentist told him he’d need to drill up into his nose area, attach chains to his eyeteeth and link braces to the chains to force the teeth down. Long was terrified of the procedure, in particular that he might wake up during the surgery. His worst fear came true.

As told to Leila Kalmbach 

When I went in for the surgery, I lay down in a typical dentist’s office chair, and they gave me gas and then anesthesia. There was a bright light shining over my eyes, and then I was out.

The next thing I remember is another bright light, coming to and then feeling an intense pressure inside my mouth. It was midway through the procedure, and I had woken up. I opened my eyes, and the dentist and two nurses were standing over me, working with tools in my mouth. They were attaching the chains to the eyeteeth and were so engrossed in their task that they didn’t even notice my open eyes.

I tried to move, tried to talk, tried to tell them that I was awake, but my body and mouth were frozen.  Only my eyes could move. It felt like being in an alien movie where the hero is strapped down and there’s a needle coming at his forehead and a bright light shining overhead.

My first panicked thought was, “Oh no, I’m about to feel everything they’re doing.” They had given me enough anesthesia that I didn’t feel pain at the moment, just pressure, but clearly the anesthesia was wearing off. I expected the searing pain at any moment.

It was probably only 45 seconds that the dentist and the nurses were standing over me, but it felt like an eternity. My eyes kept darting around, staring at them, but still they didn’t notice. Then they finished with that part of the procedure and walked away. I was left alone, awake in a body that wasn’t responding, wondering what would happen next.

For the next 30 seconds or so, I was freaked out. I tried to move my arms and legs, to snap out of this alien state, but it didn’t work. Then I just started talking to myself. I told myself to settle down. I still didn’t feel pain, luckily. My only option was to try to go back to sleep. After about 20 seconds of this self-talk, I drifted off.

When I woke up the second time, the procedure was over. I felt relief wash over me, but then I got upset. I told the nurses I had woken up, but they didn’t believe me. “We didn’t see you open your eyes,” one said. “We would’ve given you more anesthesia right away.” I was really shaken up, but while my mom believed me, the nurses weren’t really having it.

“Well, sorry about that,” another said, “but you’re okay now, and the procedure was successful.” To me, it wasn’t okay, but I let it drop. More than anything, I just wanted to get out of there.

Now, years later, I’m still terrified of surgery. I had to have several surgeries in 1991 following a car accident, and they were awful. Luckily, I did not wake up during them. But even now, I still sometimes have nightmares of being awake but unable to move. It’s frightening. And I recently went to the dentist for the first time in 14 years — but I take very good care of my teeth.

A slightly modified version of this story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Austin Monthly magazine. Reprinted with permission.







2 Responses to “What’s it like to wake up during oral surgery?”
  1. PJ says:

    Just as a counter point, I woke up twice during my 4x wisdom teeth today. The first time was when they were removing one of my teeth that they had already broken up. I felt no pain at all, but I could see and feel the surgeon working. I actually kind of wanted to stay awake to feel what was going to happen next, but the anesthesiologist noticed that I was awake after about a minute and upped my medicine dose. Then he told me to go back to sleep, and I did.

    The second time I woke up the surgeon was suturing my last tooth. They didn’t up my medicine again that time though since they were basically done with the surgery as a whole and I wasn’t freaking out or anything.

    Basically, right before you wake up you’ll see a bunch of crazy colors for a couple minutes and then hear the surgeons’ voices. Then you’ll fully regain consciousness and be able to see. Don’t worry about pain, because unless your surgeon and/or anesthesiologist sucks there isn’t any. Once the anesthesiologist notices you’re awake he’ll up your anesthesia and you’ll see some more pretty colors until you pass out again. Pretty chill.

    I’m not trying to take away from the terrible experience that the OP had. I just figure that if someone is about to get their own surgery done and is petrified of waking up, it might be nice to see that waking up isn’t always that stressful. YMMV though, since I have no anxiety disorders/complexes (besides occasional panic attacks in social situations which isn’t applicable here) and I’m not very squeamish about blood or my body.

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