Hypoxic Brain Injury: A Preventable Anesthesia Error | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Most people who have to undergo some type of surgical procedure are often focused on the procedure itself and may not even consider the potential issues that being put under anesthesia may pose. But it is important for all patients to know what these issues are in order to be able to make informed decisions about their medical care.

If the patient goes into a coma immediately after a surgical procedure, family members want answers and fast. Let’s face it, you shouldn’t end up in a coma after an otherwise routine surgical procedure if the anesthesiology is done correctly. So, what are some of the known problems that happen in anesthesiology situations that can result in the loss of oxygen, medically referred to as hypoxia?   Circumstances that can cause hypoxic brain injury as a result of a hypoxic brain injury is explained below.

Airway Obstruction

One common issue that takes place under anesthesia is upper airway obstruction. This obstruction occurs because there is a loss of muscle tone that occurs when a person is put to sleep. This is one reason why it is critical for an anesthesiologist to constantly monitor their patients, to ensure that the airway does not become obstructed, leaving the patient unable to breathe.

During the procedure, there are a number of monitoring devices which regularly check the patient’s oxygen saturation and breathing parameters, so many times an anesthesiologist can quickly restore breathing in their patient. For example, an oxygenation device may be quickly placed over the nasal passages even if the tracheal airway is blocked, when a patient is involuntarily and continually coughing, causing a sudden closure of the tracheal airway.




In the field of anesthesiology, there is a dreaded phrase called “losing the airway.” This usually describes an attempt to intubate the patient and the sudden loss of appropriate oxygen for the patient. These are the types of nightmares that anesthesiologists are trained to avoid. They can be called “never events” and should never occur with the proper planning.

There are multiple factors that an anesthesiologist should consider when determining how much risk of losing an airway a patient may be at. Some of these factors include:

  • Prior anesthetic history
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Sedative consumption
  • Medical conditions that could cause narrowing of the airways

Anesthesiology Services by a CRNA

Another anesthesiology nightmare scenario can occur when the anesthesiology is conducted at a doctor’s clinic, where anesthesiology services are less than at a full-service hospital. Sometimes outpatient clinics are not fully supplied with all of the emergency equipment that a trauma hospital may have (sometimes called a “crash kit”). At other times, procedures are done without a fully licensed anesthesiologist and instead, the physician or surgeon only has a certified registered nurse anesthetist assisting (CRNA).

In the usual hospital setting, there is an anesthesiologist, who is a fully licensed medical doctor, along with a CRNA. One can think of a CRNA as like a paralegal to a lawyer; they do a lot of the significant work in an anesthesiology setting but under the guidance of the anesthesiologist.

Hypoxic Brain Injury

The brain needs oxygen to function and any interruption of that supply can be dangerous. After just 15 seconds, a person will lose consciousness. After only a few minutes, brain cells begin to die off and once four minutes pass, permanent damage to the brain begins. Some of that permanent damage can include:

  • Cognitive problems
  • Coma
  • Difficulty using or understanding the meaning of words
  • Disabilities
  • Headaches
  • Inability to do common tasks
  • Lack of coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Movement disorders, such as muscle spasms, rigidity, and spasticity
  • Persistent vegetative state, also referred to as wakeful unresponsiveness. This condition is different from a coma, although many people who emerge from a coma often end up in this condition.  
  • Poor judgment, reasoning, and information processing
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Visual disturbances, such as being unable to focus
  • Weakness of the limbs
  • Death

Contact a Virginia Anesthesia Malpractice Attorney for Help

If your loved one has suffered a serious injury or death due to anesthesiology error, contact a Virginia personal injury attorney to discuss what legal options your family may have. The legal team at Shapiro & Appleton has been advocating for victims and their families for more than 30 years and understand how devastating these medical never event cases can be. Call our office today to set up a free and confidential case evaluation and find out how we can fight to get your family the financial justice you deserve.