The family of a Raleigh County Baptist minister and coal miner who took his life two weeks after undergoing surgery has filed a wrongful death suit against the anesthesiology business they claim failed to give their father the drugs necessary to render him unconscious.

The plaintiffs, who have sued Raleigh Anesthesia Associates, claim Sherman Sizemore was paralyzed but fully aware of what was occurring for 16 minutes after the first incision of an exploratory laparotomy at Raleigh General Hospital on Jan. 19, 2006. They believe the uncharacteristic behavior Sizemore experienced — such as being afraid of being alone and being buried alive — in the days following the procedure were symptoms of a psychological condition that stemmed from the trauma of his anesthesia awareness and would ultimately result in his suicide.

Raleigh Anesthesia no longer performs services at Raleigh General Hospital.

“One would be hard pressed to imagine a more disturbing scenario than having one’s body cut open while totally awake and alert, but totally helpless to move, scream or alert others to the situation,” says the complaint, filed last month in Raleigh County Circuit Court by Charleston attorney Tony O’Dell on behalf of plaintiffs, Violet Lenoka Graham and Sheila Dickens, co-executrixes of Sizemore’s estate.

Raleigh Anesthesia’s attorney, Bill Foster of Char-leston, did not return messages seeking comment on the case.

The complaint says Sizemore, executive director of the Freewill Baptist Conference for Raleigh County, underwent the surgery to diagnose the cause of some abdominal pain.

It says Dr. Bruce Cannon, anesthesiologist, and Larry Rupe, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, both working under Raleigh Anesthesia Associates, gave Sizemore paralytic — or neuromuscular — agents which rendered Sizemore unable to move, speak or communicate, but then neglected to provide him inhalational anesthesia — the agent that renders a patient unconscious and unable to experience pain — for 29 minutes after the induction of the exploratory laparotomy.

“Sixteen minutes after the first incision into Mr. Sizemore’s abdomen, the defendant, by and through its agents and/or employees, discovered that they had negligently, carelessly, recklessly and in a clear deviation from the appropriate standard of medical care, failed to turn on the inhalational anesthesia; and therefore, did in fact begin to administer the inhalational anesthesia to Mr. Sizemore,” the complaint reads.

“Following the recognition of their clear error, Dr. Cannon and Larry Rupe, CRNA, also administered to Mr. Sizemore a drug to induce amnesia of the event,” it continues.

No one ever told Sizemore what had happened, the complaint says. Nor did anyone provide medical attention for his psychological injuries. He was never sure if what he thought happened had really happened, and it tormented him.

O’Dell said the issue came to light after Sizemore’s death, when a doctor’s condolences prompted nurses in Sizemore’s family to take a closer look at the medical records.

The complaint says that in the short period following the laparotomy, Sizemore — who had never suffered from any psychological or psychiatric conditions prior to Jan. 19, 2006 — became a different person. He was unable to sleep, afraid to be left alone, complained of not being able to breathe, complained of people trying to bury him alive, refused to be around his grandchildren and had nightmares on the rare occasions when he was able to sleep.

The lawsuit states the defendants should have told Sizemore about their error and offered him follow-up care because of the “ominous signs of psychological injuries,” which are recognized in the medical community and associated with anesthesia awareness.

The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists has reported that prolonged psychological or psychiatric care is often needed in cases of anesthesia awareness. Also, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), in 2004, issued a “Sentinel Event Alert” on the issue of preventing and managing the impact of anesthesia awareness.

Anesthesia awareness, also called unintended intra-operative awareness, occurs under general anesthesia when a patient becomes cognizant of the surgical events but is unable to communicate with the surgical team because of the paralytic agents that have been administered to the patient. It is known to occur approximately 20,000 to 40,000 times each year in the United States and is closely associated with patients experiencing post-surgical mental distress and the development of other psychological conditions including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the JCAHO alert.

Carol Weihrer, president and founder of the Reston, Va.-based Anesthesia Aw-areness Campaign, said she believes the number of unreported anesthesia awareness cases is even higher than 100 to 200 times a day.

She believes Sizemore’s case — along with an upcoming movie starring Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen called “Awake” — may be shed national attention on the issue.

“This may be the first verifiable suicide that can be directly linked to anesthesia awareness,” she said. “But many (victims) become suicidal.”

Weihrer said she was a victim of anesthesia awareness during an operation in which her eye was removed in 1998 and still suffers from the trauma. Her story has been featured on “CBS Evening News.”

“If you take a rape, or kidnapping, or 9/11, or war, or anything, and you take away the abilities to make tears, moan, yell, fight, or move, that is literally being buried alive,” she told The Register-Herald. “... It’s horror.”

O’Dell said he believes that’s what Sizemore experienced.

“After two weeks of torment resulting from the psychological injuries caused by the defendant’s negligence, carelessness and recklessness ... Sherman Sizemore Jr. took his life on February 2, 2006,” the complaint states.

He was 73.

The suit seeks unspecified monetary compensation for damages to Sizemore’s heirs, including sorrow, mental anguish and funeral expenses.

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