Brain Injury and Medical Malpractice

The prevalence of brain injury in the United States is alarming as it is the second leading cause of disability in the country. Often referred to as the silent epidemic, approximately 3.17- 5.3 million Americans suffer from traumatic brain injuries, another 4.7 million have brain injuries from strokes, and another 500,000 have cerebral palsy (brain injury due to an event of oxygen deprivation). Causes of brain injury that may give rise to a medical malpractice lawsuit are further described below: 

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Brain Injury from Birth: a medical malpractice lawsuit may arise may when a child's brain is negligently deprived of oxygen during pregnancy, labor and delivery. This may result in the child later developing cerebral palsy, mental retardation, seizures, blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities. Oxygen deprivation that injures a baby's brain may arise from any of the following events: 

*Compression of the umbilical cord during delivery

*Maternal Infection present during the pregnancy or delivery

*Placental abruption or uterine rupture prior to birth

*Maternal high blood pressure during the pregnancy (preclampsia)

*Breeched vaginal position of the baby (feet first rather than head first)

*Improper administration or doasage of epidural or labor inducing drugs during the delivery

*Failure to timely perform an emergency c-section

*Fetal macrosomia (oversized baby) unable to navigate the birth canal 

Brain Injury in Adults and Children: a medical malpractice lawsuit may arise as a result of errors in diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical condition. A few of the causes of brain injury in children and adults that may involve medical malpractice include: 

*Medication errors

*Anesthesia errors

*Surgical errors

*Radiology errors 

*Emergency room errors

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of heart attack or cardiac arrest

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of a stroke, aneurysm, or blood clot

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of meningitis or encephalitis

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of a spreading infection or abscess

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of internal bleeding

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of hydrocephalus 

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of diabetes/diabetic coma/insulin shock

In addition to the above mentioned causes of brain injury, many other errors involving patient treatment and care may give rise to a lawsuit.  One of the most common causes occurs when a hospital patient or nursing home patient falls (due to inadequate protective measures) and the patient suffers a traumatic brain injury.  In fact, falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury in our country surpassing even motor vehicle accidents. For a detailed guide to the incidence, prevalence, and epidemiology of brain injury, see The Essential Brain Injury Guide prepared under the auspices of the Brain Injury Association of America.     

Small Bowel Obstruction and Medical Malpractice

The small bowel is a long coiled hollow tube, called a tract, that is approximately twenty-five feet long. It includes the duodenum, jejunum and ileum.  A small bowel obstruction, also known as a small intestinal obstruction, is a mechanical or functional (paralytic) blockage of the intestinal tract, which prevents the normal transit of digestive products. It can occur at any level throughout the jejunum and ileum, and is considered a medical emergency when it occurs. The condition is often treated conservatively for the first several days; however, the patient must be monitored very closely for signs of clinical deterioration that can become life threatening.

iStock_000017493981XSmall.jpgMechanical obstruction is due to a mechanical barrier, such as an adhesive band from prior surgery, which creates a road block to the bowel.  On the other hand, functional obstruction is caused by an event that interferes with the nervous innervation of the bowel, such as electrolyte imbalances and metabolic disturbances. Functional bowel obstruction can be caused by a multitude of conditions whereas mechanical SBO is generally credited to a luminal, mural, or extra-mural mechanical barrier. A clinical syndrome exists called small intestinal pseudo-obstruction, which is characterized by manifestations of mechanical bowel obstruction in the absence of an obstructive lesion.

The symptoms of a mechanical small bowel obstruction include abdominal fullness and/or excessive gas, abdominal distention, pains and cramps in the stomach area (specifically the mid abdomen), vomiting, constipation (inability to pass gas or stool), diarrhea, and bad breath. Acute functional small bowel dilatation is referred to as adynamic or paralytic ileus. The symptoms of paralytic obstruction, in reference to the ileus, are abdominal fullness and/or excessive gas, abdominal distention, and vomiting after eating.  The pain less closely resembles the colicky type seen in mechanical obstruction, but may be just as severe

The diagnosis is determined by listening to the abdomen with a stethoscope. High-pitched, tinny and clanking sounds can be heard at the onset of mechanical obstruction.  If the blockage persists for too long or the bowel is significantly damaged, due to the stretching of the blood vessels supplying it thereby decreasing blood flow, bowel sounds will decrease and eventually become silent.  The hallmark of paralytic ileus is decreased or absent bowel sounds, which can create confusion in relation to the issue of etiology if this occurs.Diagnostic tests that demonstrate obstruction include plain radiographic film of the abdomen (usually in the flat and upright position), CT scan, barium enema and upper GI series with small bowel follow through

Treatment depends on the cause of the obstruction. In some cases, drastic measures are necessary to save a person’s life, while in others a strategy of watchful waiting is more appropriate. In general, more serious cases that require immediate treatment can be identified based on a patient’s vital signs and physical exam. If the person is very sick and appears to be on the brink of a serious event, surgery may be required to ensure the patient’s life.

To determine if there is any deterioration consistent with lack of blood flow, which leads to bowel ischemia, gangrene, perforation, septic shock, and death, it is imperative that the following steps be taken. The bowel must be decompressed with a long indwelling tube, all oral feeding must be stopped and IV therapy must be initiated with continuous monitoring and observation. Generally speaking, there is no reason anyone presenting to the emergency room with a small bowel obstruction should die in the hospital unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Appendicitis: Early Diagnosis and Treatment are Essential

Appendicitis is a medical emergency that requires immediate surgery to remove the appendix.  If left untreated, an inflamed appendix will eventually rupture.  When this happens intestinal contents (stool and bacteria) spill into the abdominal cavity causing infectious peritonitis, a serious and toxic inflammation of the abdominal cavity's lining (the peritoneum).  This condition can be fatal unless it is treated quickly with surgery and strong antibiotics.

SYMPTOMS: Usually pain is the first symptom, starting in the mid abdomen around the navel, and except in children below 3 years old, the pain tends to localize in the right lower quadrant within a few hours.  The abdominal wall becomes sensitive to gentle pressure, and the pain can be elicited through various tests the physician will use to bring it out.  One such sign is when the abdomen is gently pushed down and quickly released.  This is known as rebound tenderness and is a clinical sign the peritoneum is inflamed.  If the appendix is located beneath the cecum (first part of the colon), it may fail to elicit tenderness (silent appendix).  And if the appendix lies entirely within the pelvis, the region below the addomen, there could be a complete absence of the abdominal signs and symptoms. In such cases, a digital rectal exam will cause discomfort localized to the region of the appendix in the right lower quadrant.  Also, if the abdomen on palpation is rigid, which is known as involuntary guarding, there should be a strong suspicion of peritonitis requiring urgent surgical intervention.  The physician can perform certain other maneuvers, such as bending and rotating the right hip, and extending the hip in the prone position, which will bring about pain consistent with inflammation caused by appendicitis.  The next symptoms usually experienced are naussea and vomiting, as well as constipation.  Eventually as the inflammation progresses, fever will occur.  

BLOOD TESTS: When appendicitis is suspected, blood tests such as a CBC need to be done to try to confirm the diagnosis.  More than 80% of adults with appendicitis have a white blood cell count greater than 10,500 cells/mm3.  Another blood test commonly used is the determination of C-reactive protein (CRP),an acute-phase reactant synthesized by the liver in response to infection or inflammation.   

DIAGNOSTIC IMAGING: The plain film of the abdomen, known as a KUB is typically taken. Visualization of an appendicolith (a white colored defect in the right lower quadrant) in a patient with symptoms consistent with appendicitis is highly suggestive of appendicitis, but this occurs in fewer than 10% of cases. Another X-ray that may be utilized is the single-contrast Barium enema, which can be performed on an unprepared bowel. Absent or incomplete filling of the appendix with contrast barium coupled with pressure effect or spasm in the cecum suggests appendicitis. Though cheap in cost, once thick barium contrast is instilled, other more definitive tests will not be able to be performed. 

The appendix may be evaluated via transabdominal sonography. Many physicians believe that ultrasonography should be the initial imaging test in pregnant women and in children due to its safety. Abdominal CT scanning has become the most important imaging study in the evaluation of patients with appendicitis.  Advantages of CT scanning include its superior accuracy when compared with other imaging techniques, as well as its ready availability, noninvasiveness, and potential to reveal alternative diagnoses. MRI plays a relatively limited role in the evaluation of appendicitis due to high cost, long scan times, and limited availability.  The lack of dangerous radiation exposure makes it an attractive modality in pregnant patients where ultrasound is not helpful in making a diagnosis. 

In today’s day and age, the diagnosis of appendicitis should generally not be missed by an emergency room physician.  If in doubt a surgeon should be called to evaluate and remove the appendix, which can be done laparoscopically, so long as it remains locally inflamed or walled off, and before there is free perforation into the abdominal cavity.  A delay in diagnosis can result in lifelong complications affecting bowel function due to the scarring of the peritoneal lining.