Going Under: What Can Happen If Your Anesthesiologist Leaves the Room During an Operation

It took less than five minutes for everything to fall apart. Michelle Hunt, 45, arrived at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital a little before noon on April 17, 2014. She was going through an endoscopy, the last step before she and Martha Wilson, her partner of ten years, would both undergo lap band surgery. They’d gotten engaged on Valentine’s Day, and both Hunt and Wilson were intent on slimming down so they’d look and feel good when they married in the fall.

At 5’2” and 287 pounds, Hunt was carrying more than 180 extra pounds on her petite frame. Despite her size, Hunt, a former soccer player, was in good enough shape to be cleared for the endoscopy. Her doctor walked her through the procedure the week before, explaining how a long, slender tube with a light and a camera attached to the end of it would slide down Hunt’s throat and into her abdomen snapping pictures of her esophagus, stomach and upper intestines to make sure she didn’t have any hernias or other stomach conditions that would be a problem when she had the lap band surgery to shrink the size of her stomach.

Endoscopy isn’t dangerous, but it’s uncomfortable, the doctor explained. Hunt would go under general anesthesia — a state in which a patient is so deeply sedated that he or she doesn’t respond to being jabbed with a pin — for the 20 to 30 minutes it would take to send the scope down her upper digestive tract.

Hunt’s anesthesiologist, Dr. Mary Maxian, introduced herself to Hunt and began quizzing her about her medical history, noting Hunt’s codeine allergy and the history of hypertension and acid reflux, and scribbling an acknowledgment on the medical chart that Hunt’s EKG from the week before showed a heart condition that would need to be taken into account when Hunt was given medication.

At 1:25 p.m., Hunt was given 4 mg of Zofran, an antinausea medication, under Maxian’s orders. Maxian went over the risks that come with anesthesia and detailed how the process would work. She never mentioned she wouldn’t be present for most of the procedure.

By 1:45 p.m., Hunt was in the operating room with 100 mg of a cloudy white liquid, propofol, nicknamed “milk of anesthesia” because of its color, sliding through the slim IV line into her right arm. Maxian was there when the drug was administered, but she left once the drug was pushed into Hunt’s IV, leaving the nurse anesthetist, Bridgette Payne Lambourn, in charge of the anesthesia.

Minutes later, Lambourn noticed Hunt wasn’t breathing. It’s normal for a patient to initially stop breathing when he or she goes under for general anesthesia, a state resembling a coma. Lambourn attempted to slide an intubation tube down Hunt’s throat and into her airway, but Hunt’s oxygen levels hovered between 75 and 80 percent. (Intubation is hard to master — it takes years of practice — and it’s especially difficult with morbidly obese patients.) Lambourn started bagging Hunt to try to get her oxygen levels up.

At 1:49 p.m., the routine procedure was becoming dire. Hunt’s heart stopped, her body went rigid and her jaw clamped down on the intubation tube. She bit down so hard, her front teeth shattered. Lambourn, still struggling to get Hunt’s oxygen levels up, dosed her with 200 mg of another anesthesia drug, succinylcholine — a drug that lasts longer than propofol and that would relax her body so they could pry open her jaw and intubate, but that would also paralyze her — and asked someone to get Maxian. The code blue alarm sounded.

When a patient stops breathing during anesthesia, the person in charge has about five minutes to prevent brain damage. Maxian was in the room by 1:52 p.m. She intubated Hunt again, but also failed to get her fully oxygenated. Doctors and nurses hurried into the room in response to the code blue alarm. Someone did compressions on Hunt’s chest. Hunt’s oxygen level hovered between 70 and 85 percent for 18 minutes until another doctor intubated her a third time at 2:07 p.m.

The code team started giving her doses of epinephrine, injecting 1 mg at 2:13 p.m., 2:16 p.m., 2:20 p.m., 2:26 p.m., and 2:29 p.m. but the glut of adrenaline didn’t restart her heart. An energized sucking sound filled the room, followed by an electric pop as they smashed the paddles down and the defibrillator hit Hunt’s chest with 200 joules, 300 joules, 360 joules. Nothing worked.

Finally, another doctor gave Hunt a dose of magnesium. More epinephrine shot through her system while medical personnel hammered on her chest, and Hunt’s heart began to beat. She’d been without enough oxygen for almost an hour.

The odds that Hunt would go under general anesthesia without incident were 100,000 to one, according to a study released by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2009, but when Hunt went into distress, the person who some say was best equipped to save her, the anesthesiologist on the case, wasn’t by her side.

For decades, anesthesia was usually administered by anesthesiologists who were on hand from the time a patient sank into the coma-like state of deep sedation until the patient woke, but today the anesthesiologist a patient meets before going into the operating room is often not the person charged with actually seeing the patient through the operation.

Instead, much of anesthesia is administered through anesthesia care teams composed of an anesthesiologist and either a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist assistant.. Some contend that this system results in a safer form of anesthesia care for the patient, while others say that the system is inherently flawed since nurses who don’t get the same training as doctors are administering powerful drugs that take a patient to the edge of death without being equipped with the ability to save them. When everything goes according to plan, the patient never has any reason to consider who was in charge of the anesthesia during a procedure, but when things go wrong, this can be a crucial error.

After more than an hour, the medical team working on Hunt got her stable enough that she could be transferred to the intensive care unit. When Hunt left the operating room that afternoon, she was hooked up to a ventilator, unable to breathe on her own.

She never woke up.

Wilson was just settling into a chair in the hospital waiting room when a code blue alarm sounded. She began to pray for whoever was in distress, never letting herself think it could be Hunt.

She paged through magazines and watched TV news, but as 3 p.m. approached, Wilson began to worry — she’d gone through the same procedure two days before and was dressed and on her way home within 45 minutes. A nurse in scrubs appeared in the doorway and ushered her into a private room, a chaplain in tow. “There’s been a problem,” the nurse said.

(Memorial Hermann staff maintain throughout the medical records that Hunt went into cardiac arrest because of an underlying heart condition.)

When Wilson walked into the ICU, she found her partner lying on the hospital bed, slack-faced and hooked up to a bevy of blinking machines. The ICU nurses layered ice packs over Hunt’s body in an effort to bring down her temperature and prevent brain damage. Glancing down, Wilson noticed two white chips on the bedside table, the remnants of Hunt’s front teeth. She asked for a jar to hold the fragments.

The hours passed in a blur, with consulting doctors and nurses streaming in and out of the room while Wilson sat by Hunt’s side, clutching her hand. A tiny pregnant woman with dark hair approached Wilson, tears streaming down her face. The woman introduced herself as one of the doctors who worked on Hunt. It was Maxian, a graduate of Baylor College of Medicine who has been licensed to practice since 2010. Maxian is known in the community as an ardent pro-life supporter and the former chair of the Healthcare Professionals for Life in Houston, and she’s spoken about her own mistrust of doctors. “I, personally, would not trust a doctor to make the ethical decisions for anyone in my family,” she told Texas Right to Life in 2012.

After Maxian left, Wilson learned she was the anesthesiologist on the case. Someone told Wilson how Maxian had worked to save Hunt’s life once she was called back to the room. Until that moment, Wilson had no idea that Maxian wasn’t with Hunt the entire time. Maxian wrote in Hunt’s medical records that Wilson “was very understanding.” Lambourn, the nurse anesthetist, never visited the ICU, Wilson says.

Now, Wilson and Hunt’s mother, Frances Kyle, have filed a lawsuit against Maxian, Lambourn and Texans Anesthesia Associates PLLC, the group that contracted Maxian and Lambourn for Memorial Hermann Southeast. Wilson and Kyle contend Hunt went into distress in the operating room because of substandard care from Maxian and Lambourn. Houston lawyer Robert Painter is representing Wilson and Kyle in their medical malpractice case. Memorial Hermann Health System was initially named, but the organization was subsequently dropped from the suit.

“Memorial Hermann Health System is not a party in this lawsuit, so we have no comment,” Memorial Hermann Health System spokesman James Campbell told the Houston Press. Calls and emails requesting comment from Uzick & Oncken, the law firm representing Maxian, Lambourn and Texans Anesthesia Associates, were never returned. All three parties have denied liability in their answers to the lawsuit.

Hunt signed stacks of forms when she arrived at the hospital that morning, including a notification that her anesthesia could be handled by either an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist overseen by an anesthesiologist. This is the anesthesia team model that has been favored by most U.S. hospitals for decades, according to various anesthesiologists.

The anesthesia team model saw its beginnings with the first successfully anesthetized surgeries more than 150 years ago. Before the discovery of anesthesia, surgery was so painful and traumatizing that the main skill a surgeon needed was speed. Everything changed in October 1846 when a dentist removed a tumor from a man’s jaw while the man was unconscious from ether, the first public demonstration of an anesthetized surgery. Initially, the lowest-ranking doctor on the surgical team administered anesthesia, but surgeons began having nurses administer anesthesia drugs. By the 1880s, nurse anesthetists practiced alongside surgeons and became the first field in nursing requiring a special certification.

The early anesthetic drugs chloroform and ether were fairly easy to handle and the patient came out of anesthesia when he stopped getting the drugs. However, even then things could and did go wrong. The first documented death from anesthesia happened when a girl was given too much chloroform in 1848. As new anesthesia drugs developed, doctors began to study how different drugs worked in the body and to specialize in anesthesiology. Anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists began working alongside each other and formed anesthesia care teams, even while nurse anesthetists have continued to push to become more independent of anesthesiologists.

Despite the conflict, most hospitals in the United States use the anesthesia team model, which has anesthesiologists either medically supervising one to five procedures performed by nurse anesthetists and remaining immediately available, or medically directing, i.e., supervising one to four procedures and being present when the patient goes under and comes out of anesthesia. This works because the anesthesiologist is really crucial only when the situation becomes dire, according to Dr. J.P. Abenstein, an anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. “We’re like airline pilots: The job is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror. Most of the time, nothing is happening and this model lets us work on other patients while nurse anesthetists watch over things.”
Today the mortality rate from anesthesiology mistakes is the lowest it’s ever been. “You’re in more danger walking down the streets of Houston than you ever would be while on an operating table under sedation or general anesthesia,” Dr. Ronald Litman, an anesthesiologist and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says.

But that doesn’t mean anesthesia is without risks. “The anesthesia care team is an exceptionally safe model because everything is being observed and watched,” Dr. Karen Sibert, an anesthesiologist and a professor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says. “Anesthesia is a scary business. When people say they’re nervous, I do everything I can to reassure them, but they’re not wrong to feel that way.”

Many hospitals have contracts with staffing organizations to provide anesthesiology teams. Maxian and Lambourn were working at Memorial Hermann Southeast through Texans Anesthesia Associates PLLC. Texans Anesthesia Associates was established in 2007, and boasts a staff of 20 anesthesiologists and 40 nurse anesthetists to provide anesthesia services, according to the company’s website. The contract system protects hospitals against medical malpractice suits like the one filed by Wilson and Kyle, Painter says.

Maxian was listed as medically directing Hunt’s endoscopy, meaning she was required to be in the room when Hunt went under and when she was brought back up, the two most dangerous points in the anesthesia process. In between, Maxian was allowed to oversee procedures for up to three other patients at once. Doctors had endoscopic procedures and colonoscopies scheduled every 30 minutes throughout the day, according to the Memorial Hermann Southeast surgery schedule for the day.

But mistakes were made before Hunt was taken to the operating room, according to Dallas anesthesiologist Dr. Caroline Ferris. Ferris, who reviewed the case for Painter, says Maxian apparently missed or failed to consider the implications of Hunt’s EKG. The EKG showed that Hunt had a prolonged QT syndrome, a disorder of the heart’s electrical activity that causes fast, erratic heartbeats. If Maxian had truly taken the prolonged QT syndrome into account, she would never have ordered 4 mg of Zofran, Ferris writes in a report filed in the court record. The manufacturer of Zofran has a black box warning on the drug saying that it should not be given to patients with a prolonged QT syndrome because it can stop the heart.

Once she was in the operating room, Hunt was injected with 100 mg of propofol, a fast-acting anesthesia drug popular since the 1990s and best known as the drug that killed Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers. The manufacturer guidelines say propofol should be dosed based on a patient’s lean body weight, which would have been about 100 pounds in Hunt’s case, and Ferris says Hunt was overdosed on the drug. Instead of 100 mg, Hunt should have been given 40 mg every ten seconds until she went under, Ferris states, but instead she received too much.

The propofol would soon have worn off, but when Hunt was given 200 mg of succinylcholine — again, Ferris says that was too large a dose based on Hunt’s size and the manufacturer’s guidelines — the drug paralyzed her and stayed in her system longer. “The overdose of succinylcholine prolonged the respiratory paralysis long past the four to six minutes which is expected,” Ferris writes. “The combined overdoses of succinylcholine and propofol removed any possibility for breathing, causing prolonged respiratory arrest.”

Maxian and Lambourn both tried and failed to intubate Hunt properly. It took three attempts to get her oxygen levels to 100 percent, Ferris notes, even though the medical records state that Hunt was “easy” to intubate. In her report, Ferris concludes Zofran stopped Hunt’s heart and then the propofol sent her into such deep sedation that her breathing ceased, sending Hunt into distress. The code team gave Hunt “enough epinephrine to wake Elvis from the dead,” Ferris says, but they were able to restart her heart only after a doctor gave her magnesium to counteract the Zofran.

Other anesthesiologists have different takes on Hunt’s case. Abenstein points out that propofol in particular is complicated because its effectiveness changes rapidly. “It takes a lot of training and experience to care for patients when sedated with propofol — not only to recognize when they are not breathing adequately, which is surprisingly difficult, but having the skills to rescue them,” Abenstein says. “The problem with propofol is not the drug, but that it’s being used by those with inadequate training and experience.” However, Abenstein says that 100 mg of propofol was an adequate dose for a woman Hunt’s size.

Sibert didn’t see any problems with giving Hunt Zofran or with the dosage of propofol and succinylcholine. Obese patients are particularly challenging because it’s difficult to predict how the drugs will move through the body since the fat-to-muscle ratio can be very different for each person, according to a study published by Dr. Abdullah Terkawi and Dr. Marcel Durieux in the April 2015 edition of Anesthesiology News. Such patients are also more likely to stop breathing when under general anesthesia, and they can be difficult to intubate, Sibert says. “The Zofran wouldn’t have made a difference,” she says. “The dosage makes sense for someone that size.”

Litman reviewed Hunt’s medical records at the request of the Houston Press and says that in his estimation, the anesthesia team working on Hunt didn’t make any mistakes in the anesthesia dosage or treatment during the code. However, he also noted that anesthesia is a complicated field. “There’s really no concrete way to predict an accurate dose for any drug on any patient. Most competent anesthesiologists give average doses to most patients and then titrate to effect from there,” he says. “We’re like gourmet chefs who add a little ingredient and then taste continuously to get it just right. Obesity is a special problem because we really don’t know the right dose, so titration is even more important. There’s very little research in this area to guide us.”

With anesthesia, the smallest mistake can lead to disastrous consequences, but it’s not easy to pin down what exactly went wrong or who is to blame.

In 1991, Kathy and Butch LaCroix arrived at the Women’s Pavilion of Denton Regional Medical Center, located in a North Texas town just outside of Dallas, for the birth of their first child. Kathy was supposed to be evaluated by an anesthesiologist before receiving anesthesia, but from the time she arrived at the hospital, her anesthesia was provided by nurse anesthetists.

When a nurse anesthetist gave Kathy drugs to prepare for a C-section, Kathy’s eyes got big and she looked at her husband and whispered she couldn’t breathe. “She can’t breathe! Somebody please help my wife!” Butch said as Kathy appeared to go into a seizure, according to court records. Then the nurse anesthetist couldn’t intubate Kathy because her teeth were clenched. “Get one of the anesthesiologists here now!” the nurse said, according to court records. The surgeon was already making the incision and noticed Kathy’s blood, which should have been bright red, was dark, indicating a lack of oxygen. Then her heart stopped. By the time she was stabilized, Kathy had suffered brain damage that left her with an IQ of about 70.

In the subsequent lawsuit, it was undisputed that the LaCroix should have been told the person ordering anesthesia medicine wasn’t an anesthesiologist, that Kathy wasn’t seen by an anesthesiologist until she’d already suffered brain damage, and that no doctor ever signed off on the medical treatments ordered by the nurse anesthetist. But even in this case, which has been cited in health-care law textbooks, the expert witnesses disagreed about what actually went wrong and who was to blame. The Court of Appeals opinion on the case noted that it had devolved into a “battle of the experts” since none of the anesthesiologists reviewing the case agreed.

Mark Alexander arrived at TOPS Surgical Specialty Hospital in Houston for outpatient shoulder surgery in September 1997. He met his anesthesiologist, but when he went into the surgery, a nurse anesthetist handled the anesthesia drugs. The nurse tried to intubate him, but she slid the intubation tube into his left lung. The surgeon noticed her fiddling with Alexander’s intubation apparatus, and when she explained she wasn’t sure Alexander was getting enough oxygen, the surgeon withdrew his instruments. Alexander had already begun to turn blue, and he died shortly thereafter.

Alexander’s wife filed a medical malpractice case. When it went to trial, Alexander’s family blamed the anesthesia group for not monitoring the nurse anesthetist closely enough, and the anesthesia group argued all the way to the Court of Appeals that the nurse anesthetist was at fault. In 2002, the Court of Appeals sided with Alexander’s widow.

Eli Tella was a 33-year-old teacher recovering from pancreatic surgery at Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco when he was taken in for exploratory surgery in March 2013. The anesthesiologist was supposed to be medically directing the anesthesia, but she wasn’t in the room. The nurse anesthetist gave Tella propofol and a paralyzing agent, and a few minutes later, Tella stopped breathing. It took the anesthesiologist 20 minutes to get into the room, according to court records. Tella died a few weeks later. His family, also represented by Painter, sued, and the case has since settled.

Nurse anesthetists have been pushing for more independence and autonomy for decades. President Bill Clinton signed a law that went into effect in 2001 allowing states to opt out of a Medicare requirement that anesthesiologists oversee nurse anesthetists (his mother was a nurse anesthetist). Since then, 17 states have chosen this option.

With skyrocketing health-care costs and the Affordable Care Act emphasizing cheaper approaches to medicine — including a push to hand off some things to nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners and other highly skilled nurses — some states allow nurse anesthetists to administer anesthesia without a doctor’s supervision. “From an economic standpoint, it makes sense,” Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute, says of the general move toward using more highly trained nurses to work more independently of doctors. “In general, there’s concern that we’ve got a looming physician shortage, because we’ve got all of these newly insured people to care for, so there’s a thought that the medical industry should move some tasks on the lower levels to nurses that are able to do the job based on their license training.”

Meanwhile, nursing associations fight any law or regulation they think will limit their practice. In the 2015 Texas Legislature, Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston filed House Bill 2267, which would have required anesthesiologist assistants to be certified by the Texas Medical Board.

Nursing associations, including the Texas Association of Nurse Anesthetists and the Texas Nurses Association, fought the bill. Voted out of committee, it died in the state House of Representatives after two failed votes. “The nurse anesthetist groups were the ones who shut it down. Anesthetist assistants do the same thing the nurse anesthetists do. I think they didn’t want the competition,” Davis says.

Anesthesiologists argue that nurse anesthetists, while excellent within their scope, don’t have enough experience to handle situations in which things go wrong. Sibert has written extensively about this issue on her blog, “A Penned Point.” Sibert says the cost angle has been misunderstood. It’s cheaper to get a nurse anesthetist degree because it takes less time, but hospitals bill Medicare the same amount whether a nurse or a doctor provides anesthesia services, she says. Nurse anesthetists have lower salaries, which saves hospitals money, but that’s where the savings end, Sibert says.

“No matter the amount of experience you have, you’re going to slip over the line occasionally, but that’s when you have to recognize it and then have the skills to get the patient back,” Sibert says. “That skill isn’t in their training.”

But Juan Quintana, a Dallas nurse anesthetist and president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, maintains giving nurse anesthetists independence will clear up the muddiness surrounding who is responsible in the operating room. “According to the current system, the anesthesiologist is supervising and medically directing the nurse anesthetist, but if something goes wrong, then the anesthesiologist isn’t there, the nurse anesthetist still gets blamed,” Quintana says. “When it comes down to it, our priority is the patient. An extra pair of hands is a blessing, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a CRNA or an anesthesiologist.”

Dr. Jeffrey Silber, founder of the Center for Outcomes Research, has studied low mortality outcome ratings, and he accidentally stepped right into the middle of the nurse anesthetist-anesthesiologist debate about 20 years ago with a study that found that cases in which anesthesiologists directly oversaw anesthesia had better outcomes than those in which anesthesiologists did not. Aside from that, he says, sometimes things just go wrong. “One case should not make policy. It’s a sad thing when things go wrong, but they can go wrong with anybody whether it’s a team, one nurse anesthetist or anesthesiologist.”

Wilson spent the first three days after the failed endoscopy sitting by Hunt’s bed, gripping her fiancée’s hand and singing their song, “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking?” During those first days, doctors conducted a barrage of tests and Wilson still thought Hunt might hear her voice and wake up. Finally, the doctors told Wilson and Hunt’s mother, Kyle, that Hunt was brain-dead, and the pair decided to take Hunt off life support. But she didn’t die when the ventilator clicked off. Instead, she lay in the hospital bed, body twitching, a low moan occasionally rumbling in her throat. Her blue eyes would open, but they were doll-like and empty.

Kyle initially refused to let Hunt be moved out of the hospital. “They wanted to get rid of her, to shove her under the rug, but I wasn’t going to let them. I wanted them to see what they’d done,” she says now.

After a few days of sitting in Hunt’s room and striding around the hospital trying to set up meetings and to get answers about what exactly had happened to her daughter, Kyle couldn’t stand it any longer. She booked her ticket home to California and came by the next morning to say good-bye to her daughter. As she was leaving Hunt’s room the last time, a hospital official walked up and told her they were ready to meet with her. “It’s too late,” Kyle replied.

Wilson stayed with Hunt, getting after the staff when they weren’t quick enough to change the soiled linens or give Hunt the painkillers that kept her calm. Slits had been cut in both of Hunt’s arms to prevent clotting, and the wounds kept bleeding through the bandages. Wilson started cleaning Hunt herself. One night she pulled back the sheets to change Hunt’s hospital gown and discovered columns of ants tracking their way across the body. Horrified, Wilson slapped at the ants and screamed until someone came and changed the bed linens. Hunt wasn’t going to die in this hospital, Wilson decided.

Hunt spent the last 12 hours of her life at a hospice care center in Pasadena. The place was painted in soft pastel colors and decorated with a beach motif so that it felt more like a hotel than a hospital. Wilson was satisfied with this.

That night Hunt’s breath rattled in her lungs and came in long, uneven gasps and shudders and starts. It’s almost over, Wilson thought. She sprang out of the cot alongside Hunt’s hospital bed, grabbed a washcloth and wiped down Hunt’s face, hands, legs and feet. She combed Hunt’s brown hair, smoothed it back and away from her face and then leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, nose and lips. “It’s okay, honey,” Wilson told her. “It’s okay to go.”

Eight days after she’d walked into Memorial Hermann Southeast for a routine procedure, Hunt was dead.

Editor's Note: This article was amended to correct to the term "anesthesiologist  assistant" and to clarify the relationship between anesthesiologist  assistants and nurse anesthetists who both work at the direction of the anesthesiologist.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray