Do Gingers Have Souls: Surgical Edition
After hours of incoherent text messages and uttering nonsense to my confused mother, the sedation began to wear off from what had been initially explained to me as a “minimally invasive” procedure.
I hadn’t even gone under for a serious surgery. I had an endoscopy, where a camera is put down your throat to survey potential damage to your esophagus and stomach.
The next day, I woke up with little to no movement in my neck and called the doctor, and as someone who probably should have Web-MD blocked from my computer, I did so in a panic. I was nonchalantly told that I began to regain slight consciousness during the procedure and was further sedated, cringing and pulling a muscle in the process.
Perfectly content to believe that this was yet another instance of my awful luck, I laughed when one of my friends suggested I needed more sedation because I have red hair. Also perfectly content to accept another poorly played redhead joke, I ignored the comment.
A few months later, my dad underwent the same procedure. I warned him he’d need somebody to pick him up from the doctor, help him get to the car and babysit him in his drug-induced stupor. There’s no chance at going back to work, I assured him.
After all, when I awoke and was asked to redress myself, the task was near impossible. I may or may not have skipped several articles of clothing. I was pushed out to the car in a wheelchair and lifted into the car seat when the task seemed to be delivered to me in another language. My drug-induced state knew no dignity.
He called me after the procedure, perfectly coherent. “I’m going back to work,” he laughed. I warned him to watch out for neck pain in the days following. And of course, there was none.
I started to think that maybe that wasn’t a bad redhead joke- my dad was blonde. Curious about the subject, I took to Google. I came across a study from the University of Louisville by Edwin Liem, which found that redheads require up to 19 percent more anesthesia.
To gain further insight on the topic, I spoke to Samsun Lampotang, PhD, a Professor of Anesthesiology and Director of the Center for Safety, Simulation and Advanced Learning Technologies at the University of Florida.
Coincidentally, Dr. Lampotang worked alongside Edwin Liem at UF before Liem’s time at Louisville, during which Liem authored the study on redheads.The two worked together with David Lizas to design an award-winning interactive animation, known as the “Virtual Anesthesia Machine.” Luck of the Irish or something like that.
“Initially, there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that redheads seemed to need more anesthesia than usual. And to Liem’s credit, he just did the study.”
So what exactly is it that causes redheads to require more anesthesia?
“There’s some speculation that it is related to the melanocortin-1 receptor gene (MC1R) that causes red hair. That’s what Liem and his colleagues hypothesized,” Lampotang said.
The MC1R gene belongs to a family of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain. As a result, a mutation on this gene, which causes red hair, also may be linked to how sensitive the individual is to pain.
Dr. Lampotang also mentioned however, that it’s worth noting that some studies have produced findings at odds with Liem’s.
“My colleagues are aware of it, and from what they’ve told me, they try and give a little bit more anesthetic. Some patients are aware of it and mention the study,” which he views desirable participation and engagement of patients in their own care.
He related it to cases of surgery being conducted on the patient’s wrong side. Procedures intended to be done on a patient’s leg have been done mistakenly on the wrong leg instead. Not something you’d like to wake up to. As a result, some patients write “not here” in marker to distinguish which leg should be operated on.
“In the same way, a redhead can mention in passing, you’re probably aware of the paper that came out about redheads needing a little bit more anesthesia.”
Dr. Lampotang clarified that Liem’s study concerned volatile anesthetics that are not used for sedation given for minor procedures.
Other studies cite anecdotal evidence that redheads may be less sensitive to general anesthesia as well, implying they are more likely to awaken during or early in a procedure.
Another factor worth noting is gender. Where a woman is in her menstrual cycle can also affect how anesthetics are processed. Because no patient is pharmacogenetically identical, it can be difficult to isolate any one variable.
Ginger jokes and awful sunburns aside, it looks like being a redhead may actually be a bit more painful.