Anesthesia Error Attorneys in Chicago
Anesthesia-Related Medical Complications and Your Rights
During an invasive surgical procedure, you depend on a team of well-trained surgeons and specialists to ensure success. Prior to your surgery, you will likely meet with the anesthesiologist who will be responsible for administering various gases and intravenous drugs, collectively known as anesthetics, which will render you unconscious during the surgery. Unfortunately, complications regarding anesthesia are more common than many people understand. If anesthesia has negatively impacted you or your loved one, you may find the following information to be immensely helpful:
- Types of anesthetics
- Common anesthesia risks, mistakes & injuries
- Proving anesthesia negligence & medical malpractice
If you or a family member was injured due to anesthesia malpractice, either during or after a surgical procedure, you may be legally entitled to monetary compensation for your emotional and physical suffering. Every case is different, but your chances of receiving compensation depend directly upon your lawyer finding evidence of medical negligence or a lack of physician oversight. Hiring an experienced Chicago medical malpractice attorney is vital in this regard. If you live in Chicago or the surrounding area, the law firm of Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC can help you understand your legal choices. We believe that you shouldn't have to suffer because of a physician's inattentiveness or inexperience, and we will fight aggressively for your rights. Call us today at (800) 996-4824 for a free consultation.
How Does Anesthesia Work?
When the body is anesthetized, the brain and nerves cannot feel pain or respond to external stimuli. As a result, the patient should not form memories, move, or feel pain during a surgical procedure. Surgeons will monitor the patient's vital signs to ensure their body is properly responding to the anesthetic, and anesthesiologists will be responsible for ensuring that their breathing remains stable.
In addition to the anesthesia, the patient may also receive a sedative. Such sedation is intended to make the patient drowsy and unaware of the medical procedure. Sedatives may be administered by breathing gas from a mask or intravenously via an IV drip. This combination of sedatives and anesthetics can prevent you from remembering the procedure, even after you wake up.
Types of Anesthesia
Anesthesia is administered in both invasive and laparoscopic procedures, and in inpatient and outpatient settings. It is the job of the anesthesiologist to determine exactly the right balance of intravenous, inhalation and regional anesthetic agents to use. The three primary classifications of anesthesia are listed below:
- General anesthesia renders you totally unconscious and affects the entire body. It is typically administered via an IV and the chemicals directly enter the bloodstream.
- Regional anesthesia prevents pain from occurring in a particular part of the body. It blocks the signals from a specific part of the human body from receiving the signals that come from the brain.
- Local anesthesia numbs a small area of the body, such as the legs or upper abdomen. Patients who receive local anesthetics remain conscious during the procedure. The chemicals are usually injected into the portion of the body involved. A local anesthetic may be used for procedures as small as a minor dental procedure.
- Sedation is usually performed intravenously (IV) or by breathing through a mask to inhale a gas. Although it does not result in the patient being fully asleep, it makes the patient drowsy and generally unaware that a medical procedure is being performed.
Risk Factors for Injuries Caused by Anesthetics
The vast majority of individuals will not experience complications related to anesthesia. Although the various anesthetics used in the medical environment are considered very safe when used properly, the physical health of the patient, the type of medical procedure and specific conditions of the particular patient have been found to significantly increase risks for injury. It is therefore incumbent on the anesthesiologist to make himself or herself aware of the patient's medical history before proceeding. To do otherwise may result in heart attack, stroke, or even death. Some conditions that the specialist must be aware of include:
- Sleep apnea
- Allergies to anesthetics
- High blood pressure
- History of seizures
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- History of smoking
- Medications the patient is currently taking
- Medical conditions involving the kidneys, lungs or heart
Anesthesiologists and other medical professionals who are charged with the responsibility of administering and monitoring the use of anesthetics carry a heavy burden. Their skilled medical services are of the greatest importance in complicated surgeries and outpatient procedures. But any failure, negligence or malpractice on their part can lead to serious, even deadly, results.
Types of Malpractice Associated with Anesthesia
When choosing a doctor or a surgeon, it is common to research that doctor either on the internet or by way of recommendations from other friends or other doctors. Most of the time, except in an emergency situation, there is sufficient opportunity to check the medical professional's credentials; however, very few patients check out the anesthesiologist. People often view the anesthesiologist as just another member of the surgeon's medical staff, like a nurse. This could not be further from the truth.
Regardless of how wonderfully talented a surgeon is, if the anesthesiologist does not handle their medical responsibilities correctly, tragedy may follow. They must review the patient's medical conditions and the specific surgical procedure that will be undertaken to determine the proper type of anesthesia, the method of introduction into the body, and the amount of chemicals to be used. They must make sure that the patient remains sedated during the procedure while carefully monitoring their oxygenation and vital signs. Despite the importance of this job, few people ever meet this medical expert for more than a few minutes before the surgery—and rarely is there any contact after the medical procedure unless complications arise.
To be certain, anesthesia-related errors occur every single hour of every single day, but most are remedied without the patient or family ever being apprised of the problem. As a general rule, doctors and hospitals simply do not inform patients or families of every mistake they make. As a matter of fact, it is rare for them to tell anyone about any mistakes at all, unless something terrible has happened, a death has resulted, or something has obviously gone wrong.
Because medical providers do not tend to step up, it is (unfortunately) the responsibility of the patient, the family, and the patient's medical malpractice lawyer to find the error. When a serious injury results or a death occurs, it is common for the patient's family to have only a hunch about what may have gone wrong. To expose the negligence that caused their injury, they need an attorney to review all of the medical records with a chosen medical expert.
Common Errors Related to Anesthesia
Whether medical negligence occurs during a minor procedure or during a major surgery, the anesthesiologist must be constantly on guard to avoid errors. No one person is perfect, but mistakes have no place in the operating room. The stakes are simply too high to allow any mistakes. Some of the most common errors involving anesthesia include:
- Failure to properly prepare the patient for the procedure
- Failure to recognize and act on medical complications
- Failure to properly monitor patient
- Providing an incorrect dosage of anesthesia
- Failure to properly monitor oxygen levels/oxygenation (pulse oximetry – pulse ox)
- Failure to properly monitor the IV line
- Improper or forceful intubation of patient to allow a safe breathing passage
- Failure to properly communicate with surgeons before, during and after the surgery
- Improper limb protection or padding
- Placement of epidural in the wrong location
- Failure to keep oxygen equipment away from electrical sources, leading to burns and fire
- Presence of defective equipment
Injuries Caused by Anesthesia Negligence
When a medical professional such as an anesthesiologist makes a mistake, sometimes that mistake is remedied without anyone ever learning that a mistake occurred. In the best of worlds, no injury will result from the error. Even after a normal procedure involving anesthetic, however, side effects can include sleepiness, vomiting, sore throat, nausea, and more. In many cases, acts of negligence result in harm to a much greater degree. According to one of the largest insurers of doctors, surgeons and hospitals, the most common anesthesia errors in order of complaint are:
- Improper performance of the medical procedure
- Tooth damage from intubation or extubation
- Improper decisions of anesthesiologist
Many prominent medical organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic, state that the majority of errors involving anesthesia are caused by a lack of oversight on behalf of anesthesiologists and surgeons. They also indicate that roughly 2 in every 10,000 patients will experience intraoperative awareness (also known as anesthesia awareness), which occurs when the effects of anesthesia wear off during the surgery. During intraoperative awareness, patients typically become aware of their surroundings, and may even experience varying levels of pain, but due to administered relaxants, cannot speak up. Patients who are unfortunate enough to experience intraoperative awareness often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other psychological problems.
Although it is difficult to determine why this occurs to some people, it is believed that certain patients may experience this as a result of certain risk factors such as pre-existing depression, alcohol abuse, and existing medical conditions. Furthermore, this may occur when anesthesiologists failure to properly monitor the patient.
It is more likely for a patient to be aware during the procedure when either 1) "twilight" or intravenous sedation is used for a minor procedure such as a biopsy, dental procedure or colonoscopy, or 2) a regional or local anesthesia is used, such as a nerve block, spinal block or epidural.
Intubation involves placing a flexible trachea tube to allow the patient to breathe properly and maintain an open airway during a procedure or surgery. Failure to properly monitor the placement of this tube or to make sure the patient is receiving sufficient oxygen may prove serious or even critical. Improper intubation may lead to permanent tooth damage, and oxygen deprivation can quickly lead to permanent mental disabilities, brain damage or even death.
People correctly assume that the anesthesiologist's primary responsibilities are to administer the correct medications and chemicals to achieve the desired pain relief and (lack of) consciousness. But few realize that it is also important for the anesthesiologist to correctly position the patient while administering anesthetics.
The correct positioning of the body gives the surgeon the best access to the surgical site, minimizes the loss of blood, and reduces the risk of damage to soft tissues, the cardio-pulmonary system, nerves, and compartments. The choice of positioning requires great caution, especially for longer and more extensive procedures. Further caution must be exercised if the patient has pre-existing conditions such as peripheral vascular disease.
In the interest of avoiding damage to the patient, it is generally advised that extreme joint positions should be avoided. One of the most devastating anesthesia related injuries is permanent blindness. Perioperative visual loss (POVL) is generally the result of a disturbance of blood flow (ischemia) preventing oxygen-rich blood from reaching the retina, optic nerve, or cerebral cortex. POVL often occurs when the patient is in the prone position and, in many cases, during lengthy surgeries that involve transfusions of blood. Sadly, these surgeries often do not involve the eye at all and would otherwise be quite successful.
Traumatic Brain Damage, Coma or Death
When anesthesia is used in any procedure or surgery, the potential for deprivation of oxygen is always present. When the body receives less oxygen, this is referred to as Hypoxia. This is a very dangerous condition, especially for babies or during delivery. When the supply of oxygen is completely cut off or absent, this is referred to as Anoxia. If, as a result of anesthesiologist error, an anoxic condition occurs and organs including the brain are completely starved of oxygen, the following can occur:
- A lack of coordination
- Muscle spasms, muscle rigidity or spasticity
- Permanent brain damage
- Short-term memory loss
- Cognitive problems
- Speech difficulties
- Visual disturbances and inability to focus
- Loss of consciousness and coma
- Persistent vegetative state (wakeful unresponsiveness)
Other Common Injuries
Complications and injuries that arise from the negligent administration of anesthesia are not limited to those previously discussed above. This type of medical malpractice may have a wide range of effects that include:
- Heart attack
- Post-operative pain
- Blood clots
- Nausea and vomiting
- Larynx damage
- Respiratory difficulties
Many of these side effects are not discussed with patients before surgery. Complications such as aspiration pneumonitis, which occurs when the lungs and airway fill with vomit, are more common in children; nearly 4.5% of children who receive an anesthetic will experience this condition. Many of the complications listed above can cause death or permanent injury, but are often preventable with the proper physician oversight.
Free Consultation About Your Case
If you think that you or a loved one have been harmed by the negligence of a surgeon, nurse, anesthesiologist or any other medical provider, call us 24 hours a day for free information. The attorneys affiliated with Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC have recovered many millions of dollars for our clients already. We can be reached at (800) 996-4824.
Proving Anesthesia Medical Malpractice in Chicago
As discussed in greater detail in our section about general medical malpractice, it is first necessary to prove that a doctor-patient relationship exists. Although this is not always clear-cut for general practitioners, in the context of an anesthesiologist it usually easy for an experienced medical malpractice attorney to establish, as it is highly unlikely that you would ever discuss anesthesia except in the context of an actual procedure or surgery.
Standard of Care and Medical Negligence
Next, your lawyer must demonstrate to the trial court that the anesthesiologist failed to meet what is called the medical "standard of care" by failing to do what other anesthesia experts would do under similar circumstances. In order to prove this, your medical malpractice lawyer will hire an expert medical witness to review the medical records, diagnostic tests, films, and anything that was generated during the procedure or surgery. This expert will then render an opinion about whether the anesthesiologist was negligent (breached the standard of care) or handled the situation within acceptable standards (met the standard of care).
The attorney must then prove that there was a causal link between the medical error and the injury or death which followed. In other words, it is not enough to show that the anesthesiologist made a mistake and then the patient died or was seriously injured (even if it seems rather obvious). In order to win a case, it must be established that the mistake was the actual cause (cause-in-fact – the injury would never have occurred otherwise), or the proximate cause (due to the inaction or action of the anesthesiologist even though he/she did not create the initial problem) of the death or injury. Just as with establishing the "standard of care", the attorney will undoubtedly need to hire an expert medical witness to prove that this medical mistake was the cause of the particular injury. No matter how experienced or knowledgeable the medical malpractice lawyer is, the court will still require a medical expert to testify about this.
Lastly, there comes the question of damages. Damages ultimately mean money, though it is impossible to convert the suffering or the death of a loved one into a monetary value, as no amount of money can ever replace their health. People most often associate the question of compensation with pain and suffering, or what are known as "general damages." But there are other types of damages that may also be awarded which are called "special damages" or "punitive damages. As with the other requirements that must be met in court, an expert is often necessary for this purpose as well.
Who is Responsible for Payment of Money Damages?
Ultimately, if anesthesiologist malpractice is proven, the case will either be settled by a trial in court or through an agreement that the attorney reaches with the responsible party (that is to say, a negotiated settlement with the medical provider's insurance company). In some circumstances, the anesthesiologist will not have any medical malpractice insurance coverage. This is referred to as "going bare," and most agree that this is irresponsible and unprofessional. In such situations, if the patient is badly injured or dies, there will be no insurance company that is responsible for the damages. Only the medical provider will be held responsible, and they may have insufficient money or assets to satisfy the claim. In other circumstances, the doctor or anesthesiologist may have purposely hidden their wealth by putting all of their assets into a spouse's name or otherwise.
Especially in these circumstances, a great medical malpractice attorney will carefully investigate whether other parties (and their insurance companies) are also financially responsible. The first place to look is often the hospital where the surgery or procedure took place. The fact that the event took place under the hospital's roof does not, in and of itself, create liability on their part. To hold the hospital legally liable, a proper investigation will look for:
- Evidence that the anesthesiologist was an actual employee of the hospital. The fact that they were a member of a medical team that took part in a procedure at the hospital is not by itself sufficient for this purpose; however, if the lawyer can demonstrate an employer/employee relationship, the hospital would automatically be responsible under "vicarious liability".
- Evidence that the hospital negligently supervised them or negligently hired them in the first place (in the event that he anesthesiologist was an independent contractor not hired by the hospital).
- Evidence that a third party, such as a medical device manufacturer or the drug company that manufactured the anesthesia, may be responsible. Such evidence may allow the attorney to sue not only the hospital for a negligent failure to maintain their machinery or inventory, but could also enable them to sue the manufacturer as well.
It is a complex legal issue to determine whether the anesthesiologist was in fact an employee or an independent contractor. This usually requires the malpractice lawyer to look at hospital employment documents and contracts and to investigate the extent of control that the hospital had over the medical provider's performance and working conditions. As with other jobs outside the medical field, the greater control that the employer has over the employee's performance, the more likely it is that an employer/employee relationship exists.
Our Legal Team has the Experience to Help
In the final analysis, anesthesiologists perform an invaluable service during medical procedures, large and small - but their job requires a very close attention to detail. Any failure on their part may result in serious permanent injury or even a wrongful death. Only when all the negligent parties are held responsible for their deeds can justice truly be done and healing begin.
If you believe that you or a member of your family has been adversely affected due to the medical malpractice of any medical provider, contact Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC any time, 24 hours a day. Our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers can speak to you in confidence and at no charge to you. No fees are ever charged until we are successful - call now at (800) 996-4824.
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- 10 Tragic yet Avoidable Anesthesia Errors (Part 2)
- 10 Tragic yet Avoidable Anesthesia Errors (Part 3)