Anesthesia makes modern surgery possible.
It involves the use of very powerful drugs used to put a patient in a sleep-like state where no pain should be felt. The use of anesthesia is like walking a tightrope: if not enough is used, it doesn’t work properly. Use too much and it may literally kill the patient, especially if the patient has lung or heart problems. How much responsibility does an anesthesiologist (a doctor specializing in anesthesia) have? That person literally has the patient’s life in his or her hands. The anesthesiologist may be the highest paid person in the operating room, and for good reason. Anesthesia is a medical treatment preventing patients from feeling pain during surgery or some other medical procedure. Each year thousands of patients in New Jersey undergo surgery with anesthesia. Most have no problems with it, but there are some people who can be seriously injured or killed due to anesthesiology mistakes.
Anesthesia has several goals, including:
- Analgesia (lack of pain)
- Amnesia (lack of memory).
Drugs referred to as anesthetics target each of these elements. They fall into one of two broad categories: general and local/regional. These are the characteristics of general anesthesia:
- It impacts the whole body.
- It is used when a patient needs to be unconscious or at least heavily sedated for a medical procedure.
- May be delivered intravenously or breathed in as a gas.
- Used intravenously, it acts and disappears rapidly from the bloodstream, so patients can go home quickly after surgery.
- In gas form, it normally takes longer to wear off.
General anesthetics are normally safe for most patients, but these potent drugs pose risks, particularly for these groups of patients:
- The elderly
- Those with certain genetic variations
- Those with some chronic, systemic diseases, such as diabetes.
Older and younger patients may have lingering side-effects for days after general anesthesia is used. Local and regional anesthesia blocks pain in a part of the body. Local anesthetics can impact a small part of the body (such as a tooth or toe), while regional anesthetics can affect large areas of the body, such as everything below the waist. Anesthesia was first used in the 1846. Despite nearly two hundred years of use, we don’t know exactly how it works. At first it was thought anesthesia blocks nerve cell signaling. Current research indicates anesthetics interfere with nerve signals by targeting specific protein molecules embedded in nerve cell membranes. Inhaled and intravenous anesthetics may each act on a different set of molecules to cause their effects. Anesthesia is used in the U.S. about 40 million times each year, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Given that large number and how imperfect our healthcare system is, as well as those who work in it, it should come as no surprise that anesthesia mistakes occur and cause serious harm and death. Some common anesthesia mistakes include:
- Using the wrong dose
- The anesthesiologist gives the patient too much or too little anesthesia due to wrong labeling on the anesthesia drug, poor communication or mistakes in medical records.
- Administering an anesthetic to an allergic patient
- Failing to properly intubate (inserting a tube down the wind pipe) or injury caused during intubation
- It’s up to the anesthesiologist to intubate the patient to prevent breathing problems during the surgery. A mistake could cause a serious injury.
- Creating a dangerous interactions with other drugs being used
- Due to miscommunication or poor record keeping, the anesthesiologist may not be aware of what other drugs the patient is using.
- Failing to recognize and/or treat anesthesia complications
- The anesthesiologist may be distracted and not focused on the procedure, possibly due to fatigue, alcohol or drug use.
- Prolonged sedation
- Failure to monitor vital signs
- The anesthesiologist administers anesthesia and also monitors the patient’s condition during surgery so the patient retains a certain level of unconsciousness. A failure in careful monitoring can result in an anesthesia error.
- Delayed anesthesia delivery
- Defective equipment
- Equipment must be kept in proper running order, because a malfunction or failure can lead to catastrophic injuries.
There are many potential injuries caused by anesthesia mistakes:
- Birth defects
- Brain damage
- Heart damage
- Heart attack
- Loss of bodily function
- Anesthesia awareness (the patient wakes up during surgery but is unable to move or speak, which may cause serious emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and sleep problems)
- Memory loss
Those of us who have had successful surgery benefitted from anesthesia, but not all of us are so fortunate. If you or a loved one living in New Jersey has suffered a serious injury that you believe was caused by an anesthesia mistake, contact us for a free consultation so we can talk about your situation, how the law may apply and your best options for obtaining compensation for those injuries.