10 Tragic yet Avoidable Anesthesia Errors (Part 1)

Medical DoctorDid you know there’s a phobia specifically for surgical operations? If you have tomophobia, you never want to go under that scalpel. And with good reason, it turns out.

That reason, called “anesthesia awareness,” is what happens when you are paralyzed—fully awake, unable to move a muscle—during surgery. It was depicted in the popular 2007 movie “Awake.”You probably don’t have to worry: It only affects between 0.2% and 0.4% of patients undergoing surgery. But it’s a reminder that anesthesia is important—and sometimes, dangerous—depending on who is administering it.

In this three-part post, we’re going to discuss ten tragic yet avoidable anesthesia errors that caused patients pain, mental trauma, and even death.

1. Wide awake during surgery: A 73-year-old Baptist minister went to the hospital. He was there for exploratory surgery meant to diagnose the source of his abdominal pain, which was later determined to be related to gallbladder issues. As preparation for the surgery, he was given powerful paralyzing drugs to prevent him for twitching or jerking during the surgery. But due to a medical error of the surgeon and anesthesiologist, the medical staff failed to administer a general anesthesia so that he would be unconscious during the surgery. As a result, although he was unable to move or speak, he experienced the first portion of the surgery without the aid of anesthetic, and could feel the surgeon cutting into his abdomen. Once the surgery was over, no one told him or admitted that an error had occurred, leaving him tormented with the question of whether his memories were real or imagined. In the two weeks that followed the surgery he suffered repeated nightmares, and said that people were trying to bury him alive. Although he had no history of mental illness or psychological issues, he then committed suicide.

2. Eye removed without anesthesia: In another example of a surgery performed while the patient was wide awake, a woman had her diseased eye removed without the aid of the proper anesthesia. This type of medical malpractice is referred to as “anesthesia awareness.” According to the woman, although the part of the anesthetic that was intended to paralyze her body worked perfectly, the part intended to put her to sleep and block pain was either given improperly or was ineffective. As a result, she was wide awake for at least half of the 5 ½ hour surgery. She could hear the music playing in the operating room and heard the surgeon instruct “cut deeper.” She also could feel them pulling on her eye as it was removed. She attempted to scream or catch the attention of the medical staff, and somehow the surgeon noticed. Eventually, she lost consciousness, but not before experiencing incredible pain and thoughts of death. Since that event, this woman has been instrumental in advocating patients’ rights and pushing for reforms, including the use of brain-activity monitors during surgery.

3. Three-year-old dies during tooth extraction: After what had been described as “normal dental work” intended to deal with cavities, dental crowns, and tooth extractions, a three-year-old California girl died in her dentist’s office, apparently as a result of anesthesia malpractice. The procedure was performed by two dentists, one of whom was reported to be a licensed and trained anesthesiologist. Although the parents were initially concerned about using general anesthesia on their child, they were reassured that this was the proper course of treatment. But children react differently to anesthesia than adults do and can move from one level of sedation to another quickly, and without warning. When this happens, the child may stop breathing and hypoxia (partial deprivation of oxygen) or anoxia (complete deprivation of oxygen) to the brain may occur. Such a condition may quickly result in irreversible brain damage, or, as in the case of this three-year-old girl, wrongful death due to dental or anesthesia medical malpractice. Although in this tragic case two dentists were present, there are no national standards which would require the presence of a separate anesthesiologist during a pediatric dental procedure.

4. Anesthesiologist blinds five people in one day: Across America, there are more than 5,000 independent surgical centers which perform a variety of outpatient medical procedures, including eye surgeries involving cataract removal. And unlike most of the nation’s hospitals, many of these centers rely upon anesthesiologists who are temporary, placed by outside contract companies, rather than full-time employees. Such was the case in a West Springfield surgery center when one particular anesthesiologist arrived for his first day of work. Although lawyers for the surgical center assert that the new anesthesiologist had been carefully watched by a doctor upon his arrival, others contend that he simply started working without proper training. At centers such as this, patients are lined up in reclining chairs and the anesthesiologist injects a numbing agent into each such patient before surgery. As each patient was injected, they yelped in pain. After surgery was performed and they returned on the following day to remove the bandages, each learned that he or she was now blind in that eye. Later, after specialists examined these injured patients, it was discovered that the anesthesiologist may have pierced the patients’ retinas or eyeballs with the needle he used to inject the chemical, leading to permanent and irreversible eye damage.

Check for part two of this post, containing the 5th, 6th, and 7th tragic yet avoidable anesthesia errors, and part three to finish up all ten.