July 29, 2011

2 Years Old Child Dies After Tonsillectomy

In Wichita, Kansas, jury has begun deliberation regarding the death of a 2 years old boy in 2006 the day after tonsillectomy surgery. Read the story here.

Based on the limited information provided, the relevant facts I have gleaned from the story are as follows:

• Child was appropriately admitted to the hospital after surgery
• There is some question regarding what was going on with his oxygen levels and other vital signs during hospitalization
• Autopsy revealed pneumonia confined to a small part of one lung
• Hydrocodone was prescribed for pain
• Lack of accurate communication between nursing and the surgeon
• Unclear patient/family factors
• Child had history of breathing problems (probably asthma)

Overall, it seems that this child's death was the result of many errors that piled upon each other. Any single error certainly wouldn't have resulted in death.

Reading between the lines, I conjecture the following might have occurred, giving as much benefit of the doubt to all parties involved, though I may be totally wrong:

1) Tonsillectomy surgery was uneventful and routine.
2) During extubation, coughing may have occurred with some aspiration of secretions (extubation... cough, cough, cough... strong inhalation with secretions resulting in aspiration)
3) Child was admitted after surgery due to age.
4) Child was overly sedated with hydrocodone and as such, not able to easily cough up secretions. Rather, probably slept more often than not.
5) Vital signs were probably on the low normal side. If truly abnormal, something should have been done immediately (nebulizer treatments, a chest x-ray, etc).
6) Lungs were listened to and potentially clear on auscultation given pneumonia was localized to only a small part of one lung. This exam was probably performed only once or twice. Given the child was sleeping, nursing may have decided (family may also have requested) that he be left alone so he can sleep rather than be disturbed and examined which would have caused him to start crying.
7) Patient was recommended for discharge the next day based on available information.
8) At home, child still overly sedated given hydrocodone administration by parents to treat pain resulting in inadequate lung ventilation thereby not allowing for aspirated secretions to be coughed up and out.
9) Death

A few areas of concern on my part...

It is possible in the parent's misguided resolve to ensure their child will not be in pain, that they may have given hydrocodone even if the child was not complaining of pain. It would be important to know what his hydrocodone narcotic level was in his bloodstream. In any event, this only reiterates that hydrocodone should not have been prescribed in a child this age. Rather plain tylenol or at most tylenol with codiene would have been more appropriate and certainly less sedating.

The story also reported the child had a history of breathing problems, most likely asthma. This fact just exacerbated the overall situation. In a healthy child, the lungs would have been much hardier and less prone to compromise.

Second, a pneumonia that has been present for many days is unlikely if localized to only a small part of one lung (one would expect a large area to be affected). Furthermore, if the pneumonia was as severe as they say BEFORE surgery, high fevers would have been present in which case, surgery would have been cancelled regardless of cause due to concern for febrile seizures induced by anesthesia.

In summary, what likely happened was an unrecognized aspiration event in a child with a history of asthma followed by over-sedation with narcotics which led to this unfortunate demise.

But... that's just my guess based on incomplete information.

Read the story here.

ADDENDUM 7/30/11: Jury ruled in favor of the defendants absolving of any malpractice in this case. Of note, a comment about the case by one of the jurors stated "I was one of the jurors on this case, and it was very hard to come up with a verdict. The reality of the situation is that there was not an acceptable cause of death and there was not enough evidence proving that Wesley and Dr. Kubina more likely than not caused the death."

Read more here

Watch a video showing how a tonsillectomy is performed here!

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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