June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

As the oxygen mask was placed over her face one day in 1990, Jeanette Tracy issued a light-hearted order to the Dallas surgical team about to repair her hernia: “You guys take good care of me.” When she awoke from anesthesia, she thought, “Great, it’s over.” Then she heard the surgeon snap on his gloves and the anesthesiologist remark about her breasts. Humiliation quickly turned to panic as she realized the operation had not yet begun. She tried to cry out, but was incapacitated by paralytic drugs. Worse, the painkillers weren’t working. When the surgeon made the first incision, “I could feel every layer of skin ripping apart,” says Tracy, 41. In agony for nearly three hours, she vowed to find out what had gone wrong, and, if possible, she says, “to make sure it never happens again.”

Every year, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, about 40,000 (some researchers put the figure closer to 200,000) of the 28 million patients who undergo general anesthesia experience limited awareness during surgery. In most cases, these patients have some resistance to medications or are too lightly medicated. Consequently, they may hear doctors talk or feel a tugging sensation from cutting. Tracy’s experience, say doctors, is rare. “She’s an example of how bad it can be,” says Peter Sebel, professor of anesthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “And one of the many problems with awareness is you feel alone, that no one believes you.”

Which is where Tracy comes in. Two years after surgery, she contacted Sebel after reading an article about an anesthesiologists’ convention in Atlanta. Sebel asked her to tell her story to the group. Soon after, she founded AWARE (Awareness with Anesthesia Research Education), a one-woman help-line. Aside from giving guest lectures on the psychological impact of awareness, and urging the wider use in surgery of devices that measure it, Tracy offers a sympathetic ear to traumatized patients. She fields about 900 calls and letters annually at her Alexandria, Va., home from people suffering flashbacks, claustrophobia, insomnia and other emotional troubles they feel resulted from regaining consciousness during surgery. Larry Moschgat, a retired Montgomery County, Md., police officer, called Tracy after he woke up during a 1996 eye operation and felt every cut of the scalpel. “To hear it happened to her and thousands of other people,” says Moschgat, 40, “it was like, ‘Wow, I’m not crazy’ ”

Tracy also hears from patients whose doctors refused to believe they were partially aware during surgery or ridiculed them while they were immobilized. One woman told Tracy she didn’t leave her home for five years after hearing someone call her a “fat bitch.” And a man called saying a nurse mocked his penis size.

The sixth of seven children of a Cleveland construction worker and his wife, Tracy was just 10 when her father, who died in 1977, was diagnosed with lung cancer and she began working at the corner grocery to help pay family bills. A teenage marriage fell apart after three years, but not before she gave birth to daughters Lisa, now 23, and Valerie, 20. At 24 and recently divorced, she moved her small family to Dallas, where she modeled clothes and appeared in TV commercials.

By 1990, she was producing infomercials. But shortly after her surgery, Tracy left, explaining that the video editing room felt too much like an operating theater. And for 3½ years, she had difficulty sleeping. “She’d wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares, and we’d crawl into bed with her,” says daughter Lisa Bailer.

With a degree in pastoral counseling earned last year from correspondence school, she started a local general counseling and hypnotherapy business. Her income from that, lecturing and selling skin-care products barely allows her to make ends meet, much less keep AWARE afloat. Her monthly phone bill alone is about $1,200, but that doesn’t dim her commitment. When the phone rings, she answers, listens intently and says reassuringly, “You are not alone. I promise you that.”

Christina Cheakalos

Macon Morehouse in Alexandria

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