‘Snakes and spiders: I didn’t know going under would be so terrifying and dangerous’

Sep 12, 2021
Fran suffered from terrifying hallucinations and heard voices following her recent surgery. Source: Getty Images

The snake was slithering along the ceiling. It was thick and black with a huge head and large bulging eyes. It stretched nearly the width of one wall. I was terrified and tried to turn my head, but I could not close my eyes. Then something caught my eye, climbing up the leg of the only chair in the tiny room. It was a spider, almost as black as the snake and its body was as large as the serpent’s head. Eight legs curled around the chair as it made its way towards me.

These were just two of the creatures crawling around the tiny hospital room I was in, a room where I felt I was a prisoner, as nobody seemed to want to get me out of there. I had been through a difficult surgery and complications had developed, so I was on the operating table for a very long time.

The process for when or if there were complications post-surgery was never discussed with me. I thought I’d covered everything with the doctors, the anaesthetist and others concerned, but there was no consideration for complications.

I’d had tests to ensure I was not susceptible to episodes of dementia. I passed those with flying colours. Apparently, dementia episodes can happen to some people after an anaesthetic.

From what I can gather (nobody wants to tell me much), I had more than just the normal amount of anaesthetic, as well as morphine. Therein lies the problem. It caused me to have hallucinations for days and days.

I saw serpents and spiders, floating air balloons with dragons inside. I heard voices and could not distinguish if the voices were real. I did know, in my mind, that what I was seeing was not real, but still, I was frightened — too frightened to sleep, to close my eyes, to look away from the imaginary. I asked about some of the voices, but nobody wanted to discuss much with me. The occupational therapist was willing to watch me to see if she could work out what I was seeing or hearing, but help for me — there was none.

I have no memory of at least seven days of my stay in hospital. I felt I was treated differently, as though I was losing my marbles and not worth any kindness by some. I received no explanation for what I was experiencing. I felt like I was a hindrance.

My surgeon eventually discussed that my reaction, and anything I’d imagined I’d seen or heard, was completely out of control. There was an expectation I would understand what was happening to me, but it seems the staff knew what I was going through, but understand? Debatable.

Hallucinations are terrifying. Unless you’ve been through something like this, you can’t imagine the horror.

I have never been so terrified in my life, even though in my mind I knew what I was seeing and hearing was not real. I still cannot sleep properly.

I am told terrifying post-surgery hallucinations occurs more in the over-60s than it does in young patients.

I pride myself on covering all the bases when I have to go into hospital. I have a wonderful GP who is with me all the way, but still, I  did not ask enough questions. I was insignificant in the scheme of things.

If you have to go in to hospital for any reason, don’t be insignificant. Regardless of public or private patient, big or small reason for being there, ask questions. Check with your GP, do not let anything get by you. Remember, no matter who you are, how old you are, what your status is, you have the right to be treated as well as the Prime Minister or the Queen of the Commonwealth, as well as any human being.

As I recover from this ordeal, the most crucial piece of advice I can offer to anyone is please never forget to ask questions, especially if you have an underlying health condition or are taking multiple medications prior to your surgery — as these could increase your risk of experiencing post-surgery delirium.

Have you ever experienced complications post-surgery? Were you aware of the risks to some over-60s?

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