Two patients arrive simultaneously in the recovery room following general endotracheal anesthetics. One patient is unresponsive and requires an oral airway to maintain adequate respiration. In the next bed, the second patient is awake, comfortable and conversant.

How can this be? It occurs because different anesthetists practice differently.

Does it matter if a patient wakes up promptly after general anesthesia? It does. An awake, alert patient will have minimal airway or breathing problems. When it’s time to walk away from your patient in the recovery room, you’ll worry less if your patient is already talking to you and has minimal residual effects of general anesthesia. Whether the surgery was a radical neck dissection, a carotid endarterectomy, a laparotomy, or a facelift, it’s preferable to have your patient as awake as possible in the recovery room.

What can you do to assure your patients wake up promptly? A Pubmed search will give you little guidance. There’s a paucity of data or evidence in the medical literature on how to wake patients faster. You’ll find data on ultra-short acting drugs such as propofol and remifentanil. This data helps, but the skill of waking up a patient on demand is more an art than a science. Textbooks give you little advice. Anesthesiologist’s Manual of Surgical Procedures, (4th Edition, 2009), edited by Jaffe and Samuels, has an Appendix that lists Standard Adult Anesthetic Protocols, but there is little specific information on how to titrate the drugs to ensure a timely wakeup.

Based on 29 years of administering over 20,000 anesthetics, this is my advice on how to wake patients promptly from general anesthesia:

  1. Propofol. Use propofol for induction of anesthesia. You may or may not choose to infuse propofol during maintenance anesthesia (e.g. at a rate of 50 mcg/kg/min) but if you do, I recommend turning off the infusion at least 10 minutes before planned wakeup. This allows adequate time for the drug to redistribute and for serum propofol levels to decrease enough to avoid residual sleepiness.
  2. Sevoflurane. Sevoflurane is relatively insoluble and its effects wear off quickly when the drug is ventilated out of the lungs at the conclusion of surgery. I recommend a maintenance concentration of 1.5% inspired sevoflurane in most patients. I drop this concentration to 1% while the surgeon is applying the dressings. When the dressings are finished, I turn off the sevoflurane and continue ventilation to pump the sevoflurane out of the patient’s lungs and bloodstream. The expired concentration will usually drop to 0.2% within 5-10 minutes, a level at which most patients will open their eyes.
  3. Nitrous oxide. Unless there is a contraindication (e.g. laparoscopy or thoractomy) I recommend you use 50% nitrous oxide. It’s relatively insoluble, and adding nitrous oxide will permit you to utilize less sevoflurane. I recommend turning off nitrous oxide when the surgeon is applying the dressings at the end of the case, and turning the oxygen flow rate up to 10 liters/minute while maintaining ventilation to wash out the remaining nitrous oxide.
  4. Narcotics. Use narcotics sparingly and wisely. I see overzealous use of narcotics as a problem. Prior to inserting an endotracheal tube, it’s reasonable to administer 50 – 100 mcg of fentanyl to a healthy adult or 0 -50 mcg of fentanyl to a geriatric patient. A small dose serves to blunt the hemodynamic responses of tachycardia or hypertension associated with larynogoscopy and intubation. Bolusing 250 mcg of fentanyl prior to intubation is an unnecessary overdose. The use of ongoing doses of narcotics during an anesthetic depends on the amount of surgical stimulation and the anticipated amount of post-operative pain. You may administer intermittent increments of narcotic (I may give a 50-100 mcg dose of fentanyl every hour) but I recommend your final narcotic bolus be given no less than 30 minutes prior to the anticipated wakeup. Undesired high levels of narcotic at the conclusion of surgery contribute to oversedation and slow awakening. If your patient complains of pain at wakeup, further narcotic is titrated intravenously to control the pain. Your patient’s verbal responses are your best monitor regarding how much narcotic is needed. Your goal at wakeup should be to have adequate narcotic levels and effect, but no more narcotic than needed.
  5. Intra-tracheal lidocaine. I recommend spraying 4 ml of 4% lidocaine into the larynx and trachea at laryngoscopy prior to inserting the endotracheal tube. I can’t cite you any data, but it’s my impression that patients demonstrate less bucking on endotracheal tubes at awakening when lidocaine was sprayed into their tracheas. Less bucking enables you to decrease anesthetic levels further while the endotracheal tube is still in situ.
  6. Local anesthetics. Local anesthetics are your friends at the conclusion of surgery. If the surgeon is able to blunt post-operative pain with local anesthesia or if you are able to blunt post-operative pain with a neuroaxial block or a regional block, your patient will require zero or minimal intravenous narcotics, and your patient will wake up more quickly.
  7. Muscle relaxants. Use muscle relaxants sparingly. Nothing will slow a wakeup more than a patient in whom you cannot reverse the paralysis with a standard dose of neostigmine. This necessitates a delay in extubation until muscle strength returns. Muscle relaxation is necessary when you choose to insert an endotracheal tube at the beginning of an anesthetic, but many cases do not require paralysis for the duration of the surgery. When you must administer muscle relaxation throughout surgery, use a nerve stimulator and be careful not to abolish all twitch responses. Avoid long-acting paralyzing drugs such as pancuronium, as you will have difficulty reversing the paralysis if surgery concludes soon after you’ve administered a dose. Use rocuronium instead. Avoid administering a dose of rocuronium if you believe the surgery will conclude within the next 30 minutes—it may be difficult to reverse the paralysis, and this will delay wakeup.
  8. Laryngeal Mask Airway (LMA). When possible, substitute an LMA for an endotracheal tube. Wakeups will be smoother, muscle relaxants are unnecessary, and narcotic doses can be titrated with the aim of keeping the patient’s spontaneous respiratory rate between 15- 20 breaths per minute.
  9. Temperature monitoring and forced air warming. Cold is an anesthetic. Strive to keep your patient normothermic by using forced air warming. If your patient’s core temperature is low, wakeup will be delayed.

10. Consider remaining in the operating room after surgery until your patient is awake enough to respond to verbal commands. This is my practice, and I recommend it for safety reasons. In the operating room you have all your airway equipment, drugs, and suction at your fingertips. If an unexpected emergence event occurs, you’re prepared. If an unexpected emergence event occurs in an obtunded patient in the recovery room, your resuscitation equipment will not be as readily available. If your patient is responsive to verbal commands in the operating room, your patient will be wakeful on arrival in the recovery room.

Is this protocol a recipe? Yes, it is. You’ll have your own recipe, and your ingredients may vary from mine. You may choose to administer desflurane instead of sevoflurane. You may choose sufentanil, morphine, or meperidine instead of fentanyl. My advice still applies. Use as little narcotic as is necessary, and try not to administer intravenous narcotic during the last 30 minutes of surgery. If you use a remifentanil infusion, taper the infusion off early enough so the patient is wakeful at the conclusion of surgery.

The principles I’ve recommended here are time-tested and practical. Follow these guidelines and you’ll experience two heartwarming scenarios from time to time:  1) Patients in the recovery room will ask you, “You mean the surgery is done already? I can’t believe it,” and 2) Recovery room nurses will ask you, “Did this patient really have a general anesthetic?  She’s so awake!”

Your chest will swell with pride, and you’ll feel like an artist. Good luck.





Introducing …  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on

To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:



In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:




  1. Just stumbled upon your blog. Very informative. Like you said, you won’t learn this in a text book. For me, running over a MAC of propofol for a 7 hour facelift I literally have to turn the propofol 1 hour before the end of the case for the patient to wake up on the dime.


  2. How do you prevent patients from moving or being stimulated at only 1.5% sevoflurane? Are you using nitrous with it? I’ve had cases where I’ve been at 2.5% end tidal and the patient still reacts during stimulation, and during periods of non-stimulation I have to turn it down. I am a 2nd year resident trying to learn.


    1. Yes, I routinely use 50% nitrous oxide as well as 1.5% sevoflurane.
      Some surgeries have minimal pain because of local anesthetic infiltration by the surgeon, or because of a regional anesthetic. These patients will need minimal or no IV narcotics.
      Most other surgeries require incremental IV narcotic for analgesia. For an intra-abdominal case, I may utilize 100 mcq of fentanyl IV every hour for analgesia. The combination of 50% nitrous oxide and 1.5% sevoflurane gives you approximately 1.2 MAC equivalents (depending on the patient’s age), and supplementing with local anesthetic or IV narcotic is usually sufficient to keep patients from being too light or moving.
      Every case is a titration, and you may wind up giving less or more depending on the patient and the surgery.
      You should not have to routinely paralyze patients who do not need muscle relaxation, just to guarantee they do not move during surgery.


  3. My mother was in the “wake-up” room after carpal tunnel out-patient surgery. She vividly reports a male nurse pinching her neck/shoulder muscle so hard. As she grimaced in such pain, he said he would stop if she would communicate to the nurses. Is this actually a wake-up technique?


    1. No.

      If a patient is very sleepy after a general anesthetic, the Post Anesthesia Recovery Unit nurse may make efforts to arouse the patient to take deep breaths, if that is deemed necessary to keep the patient’s oxygen saturation at a safe level. These efforts may include verbal requests, gentle traction on the jaw to pull the airway open, or mild rubs on the sternum. No one is taught to pinch a neck or a shoulder muscle hard.


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