The words we never want to hear "I'm sorry, your loved one has irreversible brain damage..." says the doctor in the crowded waiting room.
You blurt out "But how did this happen?" you ask with baited breath, trying to learn the source of your terrible angst.
The doctor wants to tell you, in fact, is eager to tell you...but the doctor knows that if he tells you the reason why this happened, you will likely bring an immediate lawsuit against the hospital, the anesthesiologist, and everyone who cared for your loved one.
When going to have surgery, the anesthesiologist is obligated to talk to you prior to surgery to ascertain whether you are a good candidate for, say, general anesthesia, where you are put to sleep. The anesthesiologist is supposed to discuss with you the risks associated with general anesthesia. In every instance where anesthesia is administered, there is always the possibility of death.
However, if every anesthesiologist told every patient that they could die from the anesthesia during the "routine" surgery, nobody would ever have surgery.
Why is this important?
Because there are some patients who would rather not take a risk, however remote, that something catastrophic could happen during a "simple, routine" surgical procedure.
Take for example a case I handled a few years ago.
It involved a woman who was having a colonoscopy in a doctors office.
She had followed the doctor's instructions to prepare for the procedure to the letter.
No food past midnight, nothing to drink.
She'd taken that awful, disgusting drink that causes you to go to the bathroom 20 times in a row, for a total clean-out.
When she arrived for her colonoscopy, she never expected what was ultimately to happen.
Interestingly, the doctor performing the procedure had the good sense to have an anesthesiologist in the room.
The anesthesiologist gave her an IV and gave her medicine to make her sleepy.
Then the procedure started.
There was some difficulty passing the tube through the intestines and the next moment the patient had vomited.
The anesthesiologist did not recognize what had happened, and rather than stopping the procedure, advised the doctor doing the colonoscopy to continue- that the patient was fine.
To the contrary.
The patient had inhaled the vomit into her lungs.
The anesthesiologist never suctioned the vomit past her trachea.
In fact, she had inhaled so much vomit that in a very short time, the acidic stomach contents began to eat away at the patient's lungs.
Soon she could not breathe easily and was having very labored breathing.
Only when the doctor doing the colonoscopy realized he couldn't complete the procedure did he stop what he was doing.
The anesthesiologist still didn't recognize the significance of what had happened.
The patient's oxygen content was dropping rapidly.
There was a strong suggestion that the anesthesiologist wasn't even around to monitor the patient as he had to go into the next case to provide anesthesia for the next patient.
After almost an hour of labored breathing in the recovery room, and a decreasing oxygen content in the patient's blood, did someone finally call an ambulance.
The patient developed severe pneumonia from the foreign matter (vomit) that was now in her lungs.
Two days later she died directly as a result of the anesthesia errors and the doctors failing to stop the procedure when there was a significant complication.
The sad part of this story is that this woman would have lived for many more years had these errors not taken place.
The patient suffered brain damage and severe damage to her lungs from an anesthesiologist who failed to recognize common complications- and developed a condition the doctors called aspiration pneumonia, as well as hypoxia- also known as a decreased amount of oxygen in her lungs, blood stream and brain.
Another case I handled recently involved a young man who had hernia surgery.
It was to be a 'same-day' procedure and the young man was to be discharged after the anesthetic had worn off.
Unfortunately for this young man, he was given too much anesthesia.
Instead of being discharged from the recovery room after an hour, he was still there three hours later.
Since it was about 7:00 p.m. and the ambulatory center was already closed, the doctor decided that the patient should be admitted to the hospital overnight- just for observation.
This way, he can be watched, and when the anesthetic wears off, he'll be able to go home in the morning.
Not a bad thought. However, the patient was so groggy, he didn't even know he'd been admitted to the hospital.
He was admitted to a regular floor and there was no electronic monitoring of his oxygen levels, his cardiac status, or even his breathing.
It was an unmonitored medical floor where the nurses came in every three or four hours just to check on you and possibly take your vital signs if you were lucky.
During the night, the night nurse saw the young man was sleeping and decided not to wake him to take his vitals.
That was a bad decision.
In the morning, when the next shift came on duty, the nurse went to check on the young man and found him totally blue, not breathing, and in cardiac arrest.
An emergency "code blue" was called and doctors came racing from all over the hospital to try and revive this young man.
The doctors were ultimately successful and were able to get his heart started again.
They put him on a ventilator since he could not breathe for himself.
Tests revealed that this young man had been deprived of oxygen for hours. His body had been over-anesthetized from the hernia surgery the evening before, and even though there was medication available to reverse the effects of giving excess anesthesia, this patient never received any such medication.
This young man lived on a respirator, suffered every imaginable complication from being on a respirator and suffered irreversible brain damage including pneumonia, infection, kidney failure and an untimely and horrific death.
"But he just went into the hospital for routine hernia surgery!" exclaimed his father.
What made this even worse, was that for a few days after this catastrophic event, the man was able to feel pain.
When they pinched his skin he moaned. When they touched his eyeball, he retracted.
There was evidence of some level of conscious pain and suffering.
This young man's death was preventable.
Anesthesia errors are tragic and unforgiving.
If tragedy strikes, try to have this question answered: "Why did this happen?"
To learn more about anesthesia errors, I invite you to watch the video below...