Does Aspiration Automatically Mean Medical Negligence Occurred?
A prevalent, yet extremely hazardous medical event known as aspiration occurs when solids or liquids inadvertently enter the air passages and into the lungs. Aspiration can be dangerous, leading to severe illness and permanent lung damage, even death. Children and adults can aspirate food particles and other items, which can lead to a hospital visit, and sometimes aspiration occurs in the hospital during surgery when a patient is under anesthesia. Failing to prevent a patient from aspiration during surgery while under anesthesia may be linked to negligence, whether it be due to lack of appropriate monitoring, failing to insert a feeding tube if necessary, or proceeding with surgery when contraindications exist. Regardless of the underlying source of aspiration, when physicians do not respond quickly or appropriately to the condition, a patient can become seriously ill or die.
Risk Factors and Causes of Aspiration
Some people are at higher risk for aspiration. For example, those with dysphagia, poor gag reflex, or weak swallowing muscles experience swallowing problems. People with weak cough reflexes or swallowing difficulties are especially susceptible to choking. Others eat too quickly or fail to chew food well enough to avoid choking. Still others who have had a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, gum disease, acid reflux, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy also suffer from swallowing difficulties. Those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol or are heavily medicated may also be vulnerable to aspiration, as well as those prone to seizures.
For parents, pediatricians often warn about certain foods that cause choking in very young children. Likewise, toys have warnings and age recommendations based on choking and suffocation hazards. Swallowing small objects can block the airways of young children and cause them to aspirate. Similarly, babies ingest or inhale foreign objects into their esophagus. When the objects become lodged and undetected, a baby can die. Babies are especially vulnerable to aspiration because the mouth is the primary avenue for babies to explore their world. They may aspirate by putting things in their mouths without the benefit of chewing or obstruction of teeth to keep things out. They also coo and squeal, playing while they eat, which may cause coins, peanuts, rocks, batteries, and small toys to become lodged in the throat. Some objects are even more detrimental than others. For instance, batteries or magnets can seriously harm the digestive system.
Likewise, a newborn who suffered hypoxia during delivery may develop cerebral palsy. Those with the condition may suffer from spasticity in the limb muscles, but also in the swallowing muscles. Some with the condition also suffer from seizures. Physicians who diagnose cerebral palsy in newborns and young children must be vigilant for respiratory problems and aspiration, common disabilities for children with the disease.
Potential Signs of Aspiration
Aspirating food, liquid, or stomach contents can lead to pneumonia without the affected individual knowing it. Importantly, since symptoms do not always appear right away or at all, a person who has aspirated food or liquid can silently become gravely ill. Others do experience symptoms like pain when swallowing, feeling something stuck in the throat, fever, coughing, chest congestion, shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, or chest pain. And if someone has a blocked air passage from food, they may gasp or turn pale, unable to speak. If that occurs, quick actions like the Heimlich maneuver and a call to the paramedics can save an aspirating person’s life. If a person sees a doctor for any non-emergency symptoms, the physician may listen to their lungs to find limited airflow or crackling. A patient who aspirated something may also have a quick heart rate.
How Doctors can Diagnose and Treat Aspiration
To confirm that a patient aspirated something into the lungs, a physician might order any of the following tests: chest x-rays, bronchoscopy, CT scan, or blood work. A patient may also undergo a modified barium swallow test to check for weak cough reflexes and swallowing issues. The diagnosis should correspond to the patient’s history, including if he or she has swallowing issues, as well as their reported symptom development. If aspiration is the diagnosis, the patient may have endoscopy treatment and medications. The physician may also prescribe a diet of soft foods and straws or have someone monitor the patient’s eating. However, if the affected person has pneumonia from aspirating something into the lungs, they may need oxygen and a breathing machine to help them breathe. In addition, they may require steroids to open lung pathways or a feeding tube.
Anesthesia aspiration is more common than one would think. When an anesthesiologist’s performance deviates from standard practice, they may be responsible for a patient’s severe complications, illness, or even their death. This is especially true when a person has surgery in the chest area. A patient may inhale their stomach contents and be unable to clear the obstruction while sedated. If unobserved, the individual may be oxygen-deprived long enough to develop brain damage or die. And if they survive, they may contract pneumonia or develop permanent lung damage. A respiratory infection like aspiration pneumonia, pneumonitis, or inflamed lungs and airways can be fatal.
How can Negligence Happen with Aspiration?
When a physician misdiagnoses a child’s or adult’s symptoms or fails to run appropriate tests, their negligence can result in overwhelmingly damaging results. Aspiration pneumonia complications, such as infection, can lead to blood infections or severe respiratory distress syndrome in adults and children. Poor communication between doctor and staff is another source of negligence, such as when the intake person or nurse does not alert the anesthesiologist to the patient’s health history that affects the doctor’s anesthesia preparation and administration. Examples of anesthesiologist negligence may be ignoring essential symptoms or contraindications pre-surgery, such as nausea, bloating, or indigestion from a recent meal or drink. Since inhaling stomach contents can cause aspiration pneumonia, anesthesiologists must ensure that patients have not ingested any food or drink for a specified number of hours before surgery.
Other potential mistakes include failing to intubate a patient or choosing the proper anesthetic procedure for the patient. Also, failing to take steps to prevent aspiration or delaying intubation upon discovery of the patient’s respiratory distress may constitute malpractice. Further, a patient who previously contracted pneumonia, had a stroke, or suffers from swallowing trouble may require an additional mechanism during surgery, especially of the chest. For example, an anesthesiologist may need to insert an endotracheal tube for risky patients to ensure the airway remains open and unobstructed to prevent problems. The anesthesiologist may have overlooked the patient’s chart indicating they were at risk for pneumonia or heart failure. If they do not know the patient is at risk, the doctor may not sufficiently prepare and employ the proper intubation. Finally, failing to treat hypoxia or evaluate the severity of a child or adult’s pain when they struggle to breathe may also be considered negligence.
Discuss Your Legal Options with our New Jersey Aspiration Malpractice Lawyers
Contact our experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Fronzuto Law Group if you or a loved one suffered debilitating aspiration effects that a medical professional failed to prevent, correctly diagnose, or promptly treat. You may have a legitimate legal claim to recover economic and noneconomic damages, such as medical expense reimbursement or future payment, lost income due to the injury, and pain and suffering damages. Even with a valid medical malpractice claim, the road to being justly compensated is complicated. As such, it is critical to have the assistance of a knowledgeable and highly qualified medical malpractice lawyer who concentrates solely on handling cases of physician, hospital, and other healthcare provider negligence.
Our New Jersey medical malpractice law firm is committed to fighting for just compensation on behalf of medical negligence victims across the state. Let us provide you with a free case evaluation and explore your options. We can assess and determine if you can achieve a favorable verdict or settlement by suing the responsible party or parties for your aspiration-related injuries or those of someone you love. Fill out our convenient form to request a free consultation or call (973)-435-4551 for immediate assistance.