December 28, 2013

Two tragedies after tonsil surgery raise questions about hospital and procedure

Two girls are left with brain damage after elective tonsillectomies were done to treat sleep apnea.

By Matthias Gafni
Contra Costa Times

RODEO, Calif. — Two years before Jahi McMath’s tonsillectomy went tragically awry, another San Francisco Bay Area girl went to Children’s Hospital Oakland for tonsil surgery to treat her sleep apnea and left with catastrophic brain damage.

Rebecca Jimenez of Rodeo, once a smart and vivacious elementary school student, can no longer walk, talk or communicate with her family following her Sept. 6, 2011, elective tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, the most common surgery with general anesthesia for kids in America.

Rebecca and her parents sued the hospital, its anesthesiology unit, the surgeon and anesthesiologist Dec. 9, 2011, for medical negligence and settled with the latter three for $4.4 million, according to court documents. They reached their final settlement, with the hospital, on Nov. 26, but the amount has not been announced.

Part of the money has been placed into a trust to pay for 24-hour-a-day care for Rebecca, 11, who, unlike Jahi, shows some brain activity.


Different doctors were involved in each girl’s surgeries, although both girls began showing signs of distress in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.

Rebecca’s attorney, Richard Schoenberger, said he has reached out to Jahi’s family to offer assistance anyway possible – “It is eerily and sadly reminiscent – startlingly so – to what happened to Rebecca.”

The twin tragedies have raised further questions about the use of tonsillectomies to treat sleep apnea, as well as the level of care at the highly respected East Bay hospital. Should pediatric tonsillectomy patients have second thoughts about Children’s Hospital Oakland?

“I don’t know; that’s why it’s so terrifying to see this,” Schoenberger said.

“I do think it’s unfair to indict a whole hospital, one that is very good at what it does,” he said. “It’s more important to find out how it happened and prevent it from happening again.”

A hospital spokeswoman said the hospital could not comment on pending litigation but released a statement:

“Over the course of its 100 years, Children’s Hospital & Research Center has successfully cared for tens of thousands of children who have had great outcomes. In fact, we have saved countless lives,” Cynthia Chiarappa said. “Unfortunately, as happens in hospitals across the nation with any complicated surgery, there are risks involved, and there are rare circumstances when complications arise. We are sorry that Jahi McMath suffered catastrophic complications and hope that her family can find closure in this sad situation.”

A judge ruled the hospital can discontinue life support Monday, but Jahi’s family said Thursday it is planning to move Jahi to a long-term care facility in the Bay Area that has agreed to care for her.

The 13-year-old girl underwent what the hospital called a “complicated” surgery Dec. 9 removing her tonsils and other throat and nose tissue, according to the hospital, to treat her severe sleep apnea. She started bleeding shortly after surgery, eventually going into cardiac arrest and losing brain function, according to the results of six doctor examinations.

Her mother claims that nurses in the PICU told her the bleeding was “normal” and left it up to her and Jahi’s grandmother to control the bleeding.

Calls, emails and texts to Jahi’s family and attorney were not immediately returned Thursday, and Schoenberger said Rebecca’s family declined to comment.


Rebecca’s court and medical records raise questions about her post-surgical care. In contrast to Jahi’s surgery, the hospital called Rebecca’s procedure “uncomplicated,” according to the medical records; it did not involve the removal of other throat and nose tissue.

The 8-year-old girl came out of surgery disoriented, with her head slumped sideways, saying over and over “me duele,” Spanish for “it hurts,” according to medical records. Her mother told nurses she looked pale with cold fingers, and her eyes, when open, were not focused, according to the records included in court documents.

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