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Waking Up During Surgery? What To Know About Anesthesia Malpractice

Anesthesia malpractice is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of medical malpractice. However, anesthesia mistakes can be serious, scary, and even deadly. Learn more about anesthesia medical malpractice, why it happens, and what you can do if it happens to you or someone you love.

Anesthesia and How It Works

General anesthesia induces a sleep-like state through the administration of a combination of medicines, or anesthetics. These anesthetics inhibit your brain from responding to pain signals and reflexes, so you are pain-free and doctors and surgeons can operate on you without you moving and disturbing the procedure for its duration. Providers typically administer anesthetics intravenously and through gas inhalation before and during medical procedures, such as surgeries. Because anesthesia is temporary, after the provider discontinues the medications, the effects fade away fairly quickly. Depending on your procedure, you may need to take painkillers to help with the painful recovery from your surgery since your brain regains the ability to respond to pain.

An anesthesiologist is a doctor who specializes in all aspects of anesthesia. You may also have a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) provide your anesthesia care. Your anesthesiologist and CRNA will sometimes work together during your procedure to ensure your body is functioning properly and your pain is properly managed, but CRNAs can also practice independently as your primary anesthesia provider.

Before surgery, your anesthesiologist or CRNA will carefully determine the best anesthesia for your condition. There are different types of anesthesia, and no one-size-fits-all medication or dosage exists. Your provider will consider several factors when choosing the best type of anesthesia for you, such as:

  • Your health
  • Your preferences
  • The type of procedure you are having and its duration
  • If muscle relaxants are required
  • If the procedure will result in bleeding
  • Anticipated changes to your heart rate, blood pressure, or breathing

Each of these issues could require a specific type of medication. An anesthesiologist or CRNA must consider all of these factors and more before and throughout the procedure to ensure the right combination of anesthetics is selected and administered in appropriate doses. Otherwise, you could face serious health risks, including waking up during the procedure and experiencing overwhelming pain, suffering, and distress. While anesthesia procedures almost always go as planned, sometimes errors and side effects occur that can have serious implications.

The Dangers of Anesthesia

Medical research generally considers anesthesia safe, however, some risks are still associated with its use. In extreme cases, patients have suffered permanent damage and even death from anesthesia's adverse effects. The following are some examples:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Allergic reaction
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Low blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Hypoxic brain injury
  • Wrongful death

Anesthesia Awareness and Malpractice

Unfortunately, instances involving anesthesia medical malpractice occur, which can result in anesthesia awareness. In these cases, anesthesiologists or CRNAs may fail to watch over their patients with the requisite care. This can lead to under-sedation resulting in anesthesia awareness — an anesthesia error on behalf of the provider that can cause you to wake up and become aware during surgery. However, not every case of anesthesia awareness is due to malpractice.

During anesthesia awareness, you are awake enough to understand what is happening and feel extreme pain but you remain paralyzed from the medication and cannot move or communicate your distress. Patients who have experienced anesthesia awareness report the following:

  • Experiencing extreme pain
  • Feeling the surgery being performed on their body
  • Being unable to breathe
  • Suffering from extreme terror
  • Feeling paralyzed
  • Being incapable of communication

Anesthesia awareness is considered a medical injury and is especially frightening compared to other types of medical malpractice. In many medical malpractice cases, patients are unconscious under successful anesthesia when a medical error occurs. So, it is not until later — after the anesthesia wears off — that the patients realize the mistake. However, because anesthesia awareness is an injury specifically related to your state of consciousness, it is a unique problem that can cause lasting trauma.

Being aware of and experiencing the full extent of your body's pain during a procedure can be staggering. Even more, so can your desperation when you realize you cannot communicate with the medical staff due to anesthesia's paralytic effects.

Long-term psychological and emotional effects are common among patients who have experienced anesthesia awareness. You may suffer from the following conditions:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Flashbacks
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Sleep disorders
  • Iatrophobia, or an extreme fear of doctors

Causes of Anesthesia Awareness

Although the quality of anesthesia has improved extensively over the last few decades through technological advancements, the risk of waking up during surgery is still very real today, although unlikely. Some of the most common causes of anesthesia awareness include equipment failure and misuse, anesthesia misuse, and anesthesia administration errors. For example, the main cause of medication errors is dosing errors. Other anesthesia errors are attributed to the complexities of anesthesia, lack of communication, and outright negligence.

Some scenarios involving anesthesia present unique challenges, like during high-risk procedures. When you undergo trauma surgery, cardiac surgery, or emergency cesarean births, anesthesia can be riskier than with routine procedures due to the high-risk nature of the situations. So, it is not always the best choice for a provider to place you under deep sedation. For medical reasons, such as blood loss, doctors cannot administer as high of a dose of anesthesia as normal, so these surgeries can present a higher risk of anesthesia awareness that is more difficult to avoid due to the reduced anesthesia dosage.

Examples of Anesthesia Malpractice

Some of the most common examples of medical malpractice involving anesthesia include the following:

  • Overdose
  • Heart attacks
  • Healthcare-acquired infections
  • Neurological injuries
  • Dental injuries

Other examples of anesthesia malpractice include under-sedation, anesthesia awareness, failure to account for the patient's medical history or current conditions, adverse anesthesia effects, malfunction of medical equipment, miscommunication among medical staff, and pregnancy-related anesthesia errors. Of course, not each of these issues always indicates malpractice. These are just some common examples of medical malpractice that may involve anesthesia.

Occurrence of Anesthesia Overdose

Administering too much medication is one of the most common issues associated with anesthesia. Anesthesia overdoses can be severe, resulting in brain damage or death. This can be due to medical negligence on behalf of the anesthesiologist or CRNA, or due to malfunctioning equipment.

Defective equipment can cause you to receive too much anesthetic. For example, if a medical device like an anesthetic vaporizer is broken or not properly calibrated, you can inhale too much anesthetic.

Anesthesia is prescribed based on your weight. If the anesthesiologist or CRNA fails to consider your size or makes a mathematical error when calculating the dose, you are at risk of experiencing an anesthesia overdose. The court would almost certainly see failing to consider your body size as a negligent action in a medical malpractice suit.

Anesthesia often includes what providers refer to as a "cocktail" because it is a combination of anesthetics. Two anesthetic medications can be incompatible and trigger an adverse reaction. Adverse anesthetic reactions can cause unnecessary pain and suffering. Sometimes an adverse anesthetic reaction can result in toxicity, which can have similar effects to an overdose.

Providers of anesthesia are trained to continuously monitor anesthesia administration and catch cases of anesthesia overdose. Even though this does not always occur in practice, the following are symptoms of overdose providers are supposed to observe:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hypothermia
  • Dementia
  • Prolonged unconscious
  • Physical or mental impairment
  • Hallucinations

Sometimes you can enter a coma and have difficulty waking up if you experience an anesthesia overdose. You can also suffer permanent impairments to your brain that can seriously affect your physical and mental health.

Anesthesia and Heart Attacks

Suffering a heart attack is another surgery risk related to anesthesia. The risk of experiencing a heart attack under anesthesia is low, but it can happen. It is important to remember that no medical procedure is entirely risk-free.

Some factors that can increase your risk of potential heart complications include the following:

  • Age
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Stroke
  • Sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Heavy drug use
  • Medicine allergies

Understanding what makes you at higher risk of experiencing a heart attack under anesthesia is a crucial part of your medical care plan and can help medical professionals implement the proper measures before the procedure. This way, the medical team can be well-prepared for any potential emergency.

Anesthesia and Healthcare-acquired Infections

Health officials determine rules to ensure you remain infection-free from used anesthesia equipment. Anesthesiologists and CRNAs must adhere to numerous regulations to protect you from anesthesia-related infections. If an infection does develop, it could indicate that a medical provider broke protocol which is a form of medical malpractice.

Anesthesia and Neurological Injuries

Neurological injuries can occur following anesthesia. Sometimes these neurological injuries can be considered anesthesia malpractice. Neurological injuries impact your peripheral and central nervous systems and generally require long-term treatment. Often, you may have to undergo therapy or corrective surgery, but sometimes you need to rely on medical devices and medication for the rest of your life.

Anesthesia and Dental Injuries

Anesthesia injuries also occur in dentistry. These injuries often involve fractured crowns, enamel, and roots. Although these injuries are rarely life-threatening, they can cause significant distress and trouble due to physical and mental pain and suffering.

These dental injuries occur because of the medical equipment used and how it is used or misused, such as intubation tubes. Some dental trauma experienced by patients of malpractice include the following:

  • Loose teeth. This injury is called tooth subluxation, and it refers to instances in which your tooth is knocked loose but not displaced.
  • Broken or fractured teeth. Your teeth can break or chip if the tubes and other medical equipment are not carefully inserted and removed from your mouth.
  • Tooth loss or displacement. This injury refers to a tooth being completely displaced from its socket or dislodged from its original position.
  • Prosthetic device damage. Prosthetic devices such as fillings, crowns, or false teeth can get knocked loose and lost down your throat, becoming a choking hazard.

Legal Settlements and Lawsuits Against Anesthesia Providers

The chance of anesthesia malpractice happening to you or your loved one is slim. However, it can occur. If you suffer injuries related to anesthesia malpractice, you may be eligible to receive a settlement for your damages. Examples of damages for which you may receive compensation include the following:

  • Medical bills
  • Future medical expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Lost wages
  • Lost future wages
  • Permanent disability
  • Punitive damages

In the most serious cases of anesthesia malpractice, you can lose your life. When this happens, surviving family members may pursue wrongful death benefits to cover costs related to an untimely passing.

Anesthesia Malpractice Lawsuits in Texas and Louisiana

Anesthesia malpractice lawsuits are filed all around the U.S. Understanding that these cases occur and that you are not alone can be comforting in the aftermath of a medical malpractice tragedy. Of the more than 50,000 anesthesiologists practicing in the U.S., over one-third will face a lawsuit at some point during their career.

Examples of anesthesia malpractice claims in Texas and Louisiana include the following:

  • A Dallas jury awarded $21 million to a Texas patient who suffered a brain injury after he received anesthesia for a broken leg surgery. The man remains in a vegetative state.
  • A Tarrant County, Texas jury awarded $8 million to a woman who suffered brain damage and paralysis after she received anesthesia before her hip surgery in 2014. She now requires 24-hour care and communicates through blinking and limited verbal sounds.
  • A Harris County, Texas jury awarded $12 million to a Texas woman who suffered brain damage after developing a wound hematoma while in post-anesthesia care.
  • A Louisiana court ordered an anesthesiologist to pay¬†$8.2 million after he implicated himself in a letter of recommendation for another anesthesiologist who committed malpractice. The malpractice resulted in a patient being left in a vegetative state.

Contact the Anesthesia Malpractice Attorneys in Texas and Louisiana

If you or your loved one has suffered from an anesthesia injury, you may qualify for compensation. Contact the anesthesia malpractice lawyers at Morris & Dewett Personal Injury Lawyers for help and guidance.

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