Real Life

Surgery gone wrong: I thought I was dying

When Whanganui mum Frances Cribb was wheeled into surgery for a routine shoulder operation, she didn’t expect that within moments the procedure would leave her feeling she was fighting for her life. The 37-year-old is still in shock as she recalls being offered a sedative by her anaesthetist to help calm her before the operation only to feel her body immediately begin to shut down.

“I knew it was different to a sedative because it stung as it went in through my drip and the next thing I knew, my eyes went haywire and I couldn’t focus,” explains Frances. “Within seconds, it hit my lungs and I couldn’t breathe. I managed to say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and was gulping for air.”

Frances says the theatre staff sprang into action when they realised the wrong medication had been administered and their patient was in danger. “They’re supposed to anaesthetise you first and then give you the paralysing drug so they can insert a breathing tube,” says Frances. “It’s not supposed to be given while the person’s awake!

“They tried to put an oxygen mask on me,” continues the traumatised mum-of-four, “but the doctors and nurses were all having to hold me down because I was being combative – I was struggling to breathe and trying to get off the table. Then I just lay back and gave up because I thought I was dying and there was nothing I could do.”

The feeling that her life was over is the last thing Frances remembers before coming round four hours later, from a procedure that was meant to take an hour and a half. “When I woke up I was on morphine so I was in la-la land, but straightaway I thought about what had happened. There are two to three hours that I can’t account for,” says the distressed patient, who is waiting for answers pending an official investigation by the Whanganui District Health Board (WDHB).

Frances then had to stay overnight in hospital and received a visit from an extremely apologetic anaesthetist the next morning. “He told me he’d had all the different drugs sorted out: the sedative, the anaesthetic and the paralysing drug, but instead of grabbing the sedative he’d grabbed the paralysing drug and given me that. He was quite upset that it had happened and I told him that I was thankful he had come to see me. I accepted his apology but the fact remains that instead of going into a happy place, I felt like I was dying!”

Frances says her husband Rodney, who was at home caring for their two youngest children, Sarah (8) and Amy (4), at the time of the operation, was horrified when he learned of the botch-up and furious the hospital had not let him know immediately what his wife had been through. “He was shocked when he realised that instead of organising for me to come home, he could have been making my funeral arrangements,” says Frances.

Back at home and surrounded by her family, Frances has gone from feeling numb to feeling angry. Her daughters constantly check the large bruise on their mother’s arm – from where she was injected – and feel anxious every time she leaves the house. “They don’t really understand but they think that I just about died and they know the hospital did something wrong to oummy,” says Frances, who admits the memory of her near-death experience haunts her every day.

Now, the community caregiver, who was nominated for Whanganui Person of the Year in 2010, is eager to get back to work and do what she does best. “To begin with, I didn’t want to leave the house but now I want to get back out there. It makes me even more determined to do more.”

In the meantime, the best therapy is opening up to those around her. “Being able to talk about it is helping me to get through it, but you can’t take those memories away. I’m coping, but every day I’m reliving that experience of lying back and giving up. All I know is that it’s going to take time.”

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