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Anesthesia Errors and Medical Malpractice

Anesthesia Errors and Medical Malpractice

Anesthesia Errors and Medical MalpracticeWhen our daughter was two (2) years old she needed open heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart that was causing unoxygenated blood to mix with oxygenated blood.  My wife and I were terrified.  I remember researching everything I could find on the internet about the surgery.  I specifically remember meeting with the surgeon, who could not have been more skilled as a human in, going over the details with us.  He explained how the anesthesiologist would give our daugther medicine that would stop her heart from beating so he could repair it.  While the surgeon was performing the repair, a machine would take over for her heart to keep oxygenated blood circulating through her body.  Once the surgery was over, the anesthesiologist would cease delivering medicine, her heart would start beating again, and they would disconnect our daughter from the machine.

Our daughter is now 14 and perfectly healthy.  (She does not even need to see a Cardiologist.)   We are forever indebted to the surgical team and the medical professionals that preceeded them for our daughter’s perfect health.

It was at the meeting with the surgeon when I realized how crucial the anesthesiologist was to the team.  As we met with the surgeon that day, I remember thinking “I really need to be meeting with the anesthesiologist – she is the one responsible for keeping our baby girl alive!!

Anesthesia is more than just preventing patients from feeling pain during surgery.  The medicine used, often powerful narcotics including fentanyl, propofol, and meperidine, can be lethal.  The reason is primarily because these medicines depress even the most primitive area of our brain and reduce the drive to breathe.  The amount of anesthesia delivered must be carefully monitored and vital signs constantly observed.  Furthermore, the anesthesiologist must have a detailed understanding of a patient’s medical history, drug allergies, and prescriptions taken.  A slight mishap can have life ending consequences.

Anesthesia errors can happen in hospital and outpatient surgical settings.  Some people with health issues, such as obstructive sleep apnea, must have equipment that maintains the airway during the delivery of anesthesia.  Many outpatient facilities do not have this anesthesia equipment, and thus some patients may not be a candidate for an outpatient procedure.  Before having any surgery, it is absolutely imperative that you inform the surgeon of all medical conditions and all medications.  At the pre-op appointment, even if the appointment is on the day of your surgery, carefully complete the paperwork provided.  A condition that seems trivial or medication that seems common can dramatically impact how your body reacts while under anesthesia in ways that you would never anticipate.

Unfortunately, even with all medical information known, anesthesiologist make mistakes.  It could be because the anesthesiologist was rushed; it could be because the anesthesiologist did not want to disappoint the surgeon and stop the surgery; it could be because the anesthesiologist just gave the wrong dosage of anesthesia.  Whatever the reason, if the medical care provided by the anesthesiologist fell below the acceptable professional level of care expected based on the doctor’s background and experience, the anesthesiologist and their employer (sometimes it’s a practice group, sometimes it’s a hospital) could be liable for the devastating consequences of the mistake.

Some of the most common anesthesia errors which affect patients include:

  • Doctors administering too much anesthesia. This can overly suppress the drive to breathe depriving the brain of much needed oxygen. This is called an anoxic brain injury.  An anoxic brain injury can cause permanent brain damage impairing a patients’ cognitive ability (memory loss, executive functioning skills, processing speed, etc.) and sometimes death.
  • Doctors administering too little anesthesia resulting in anesthesia awareness. This renders a patient unable to speak or communicate but feeling pain.
  • Doctors failing to prevent or recognize adverse drug reactions caused by interactions between anesthesia and certain medications.
  • Doctors administering the wrong type of anesthesia.
  • Doctors failing to determine if a patient is allergic to anesthesia or accidentally administering an anesthesia medication the patient is allergic to.
  • Doctors failing to provide proper instructions to patients before administering anesthesia.
  • Doctors failing to properly monitor the patient during a surgical procedure in which the patient is under anesthesia.
  • Doctors failing to properly monitor the patient while recovering after surgery.
  • Doctors leaving monitoring or intubating devices inside patient once the surgery is complete.
  • Doctors failing to consider the effects patient positioning may have on the patient’s blood pressure and the blood supply to the patient’s brain (for example, in “beach chair position”).
  • Doctors using defective equipment or medical devices during surgery.

The consequences of these and other errors can be wide ranging.  Damage to the brain, heart, or other organs is a substantial risk of anesthesia errors.  A patient can also suffer a wide range of complications caused by an inadequate supply of oxygen, called  hypoxia.  This can cause brain death if oxygen levels are too low, or the hypoxia lasts too long.  If the patient is pregnant and anesthesia is delivered during labor and delivery or any other procedure the baby may suffer a birth injury known as cerebral palsy.  Milder problems caused by anesthesia errors can be ringing in the ears, confusion, and blurred vision, among other symptoms.  Abnormal pulse or heart arrhythmia are also possibilities, as is cardiovascular collapse.  Patients could also suffer spinal cord injury causing paralysis, complications with blood pressure, seizures, stroke, malignant hyperthermia, coma, or death.  The specific consequences of an anesthesia error are going to depend on the type of mistakes made when doctors provide anesthesia treatment for the patient, either directly or through a nurse anesthetist (also known as a CRNA) or Physician’s Assistant in Anesthesiology.

Whenever anesthesia causes harm to a patient, the victim or the victim’s family will need to prove the damage was caused by negligence in order to prevail in a medical malpractice claim.  Surviving patients may pursue a personal injury claim, or family members of those who died because of an anesthesia error may make a claim for wrongful death damages.  An experienced medical malpractice attorney can provide invaluable assistance when problems with anesthesia arise.

In Georgia, you have a limited time to file your medical malpractice claim.  We encourage you to contact our office at The Baer Law Firm.  Or call us at  404.THE.BAER (404.843.2237) for honest advice about your potential case.