Medical and surgical errors are common in Canada: research suggests that roughly 70,000 preventable medical errors, causing as many as 23,000 deaths, occur each year in the country. As a result, medical malpractice and surgical error lawyers are regularly confronted with the serious, sometimes life-changing impacts of medical negligence.

Few medical mishaps are as terrifying, though, as what is clinically known as “unintended intraoperative awareness with recall,” when a surgery patient wakes up, paralyzed, during an operation.

Accidental awareness during surgery is not a common occurrence: most studies have found an incidence of roughly once every 1,000 surgeries, including events that last only seconds and where the patient doesn’t feel pain. Some studies suggest it happens much less frequently.

In the unusual circumstance that a patient does experience extended awareness during surgery, though, the consequences can be life-changing, as some surgical error lawyers have discovered. This May, a woman won what is believed to be the first medical malpractice case in Canada dealing with this phenomenon.

In December 2008, Lynn Hillis woke up during a laparoscopic cancer surgery to remove her uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes at Toronto General Hospital. She experienced terrible pain but was paralyzed and unable to alert doctors.

“Someone was inside me, ripping, ripping me apart,” she said at trial. “It was excruciating. It was burning and burning and burning.”

Hillis required several months of psychiatric and psychological treatment following the event and remains shaken by it years later. In covering Hillis’s case, the National Post spoke with another woman, Donna Penner of Winnipeg, who was diagnosed with PTSD after enduring a similar experience, also in 2008.

“The impact was just profound,” Penner said. “It started with the nightmares. It’s been nine years and I still have nightmares. I still wake up screaming.”

Defence lawyers in Hillis’s case argued that the anesthetic had been administered properly; that accidental awareness was a known risk factor; and that her experience was not caused by negligence.

Judge Kendra Coats, who heard the case, disagreed. She decided that the anesthesiologist ‘failed to sufficiently increase the dose of intravenous Propofol after reducing the flow of nitrous oxide at the request of the surgeons,’ the Post reported. The two sides of the dispute have agreed on an undisclosed amount of compensation.

Though Lynn Hillis was compensated for her ongoing injuries, many victims of medical malpractice in Canada are less fortunate. If you or a member of your family has been injured during a medical procedure, contact the surgical error lawyers at Neinstein Personal Injury Lawyers today to learn how we can help.


Greg Neinstein