Archive for the ‘Catastrophic Personal Injury’ Category

Deadly Super Bugs on the rise.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Health scares are common and are many times overblown. However, the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics (dubbed Super Bugs) is a very real and growing danger. Yahoo Health is reporting that two especially dangerous bacteria – MRSA and CRKP – are becoming resistant to all but the most advanced antibiotics, which is posing a major health threat.

Klebsiella is a common type of gram-negative bacteria that are found in our intestines (where the bugs don’t cause disease). MRSA (methacillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) is a type of bacteria that live on the skin and can burrow deep into the body if someone has cuts or wounds, including those from surgery.

The reason for this new resistance is likely over-use (which includes mis-use) of antibiotics by health care providers (with likely some contribution from use of antibiotics in animals). For a few years now, there has been a growing recognition that doctors are over-prescribing antibiotics, i.e., routinely prescribing antibiotics when they are not necessary. For example, in 2005, U.S. News reported a Harvard study that revealed that doctors routinely prescribed antibiotics for sore throats in children when they were not indicated. A 2007 study indicated that Dutch doctors (whom are generally considered more careful in their use of antibiotics) routinely prescribed antibiotics for respiratory tract infections when they were not indicated.

The Problem with “Overuse”

The danger this poses is that antibiotics – even effective ones – typically leave some bacteria alive. These tend to be the stronger or more resistant bacteria, which then leads to the development of more and more resistance. This occurs in a single individual body in which a patient may have less response to an antibiotic after earlier use of that same antibiotic, but because of the easy spread of bacteria in our world, it also occurs on a global scale. For certain strains of bacteria, doctors are becoming hard-pressed to treat these infections.

CRKP – worse than MRSA?

Thankfully, MRSA is still responsive to several antibiotics so it is still considered a treatable infection. CRKP, however, is of more concern because it is only responsive to Colistin, which can be toxic to the kidneys. Therefore, doctors have no good options when treating CRKP. While so far, the risk of healthy people dying from MRSA and CRKP remains very low, the most vulnerable of us (the elderly and the chronically ill) remain at risk because of their lowered immune system and because the elderly are in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities where infections tend to spread more easily than in the general community.

CRKP has now been reported in 36 US states—and health officials suspect that it may also be triggering infections in the other 14 states where reporting isn’t required. High rates have been found in long-term care facilities in Los Angeles County, where the superbug was previously believed to be rare, according to a study presented earlier this month.

It is essential that we rein in the casual use of antibiotics before we are left with infections that have no cure. Doctors must be better trained to know when antibiotics are necessary and when they are not. For example, antibiotics are useless against viruses (such as the common cold), but how many of you have been given an antibiotic by a doctor “just in case” or because your symptoms have gone on slightly longer than a typical cold would last? It is unfortunately a more common occurrence than we realize. The past success of antibiotics has naturally led doctors to want to give them to patients to relieve suffering. No one wants to turn down a patient who is seeking relief.  However, it makes no sense to give antibiotics to a patient who has no bacterial infection or whose illness will clear up on its own.

Patient Awareness is key

The problem, however, is more than just educating doctors. Patients share some blame too. We – the public – need to learn that antibiotics are not always needed, which can be a difficult lesson to learn when we’re sick. Everyone knows that antibiotics are a quick and effective remedy against common bacterial infections. Antibiotics have saved countless lives over the years and have relieved untold human suffering. So naturally, when we are sick (or our child is sick) and we go to the doctor, we want to see results. We want something that will alleviate the pain and symptoms, not simply be told to wait for the illness to run its course. Sometimes, however, that is the best course when you consider the side-effects of antibiotics and the dangers of over-use. That being said, who wants to hear that when you’re in pain and want relief? It is very easy to demand of doctors that they use all available means to treat a sick child. Doctors need to be able to stand-up to patients and educate them on why antibiotics are not necessarily the best course of treatment in a specific situation.

Don’t kill the good ones!

Doctors also have to teach patients that antibiotics are not targeted killers.  The body contains a lot of good bacteria that are vital to our body’s functioning.  Antibiotics kill those bacteria as well, which some researchers believe can adversely affect health by allowing harmful bacteria to proliferate.  (If you have seen “probiotocs” advertised on certain food products – like yogurt – that is an attempt to introduce good bacteria back into your body.).

Some basic steps to take

In order to protect yourself (or a loved one), good hygiene remains the most effective method of remaining infection-free.  Thankfully, neither MRSA or CRKP are transmitted through the air.  They are typically transmitted through person-to-person contact, or else through hospital equipment such as IV lines, catheters, or ventilators.  If you have a loved one in a hospital or nursing home, be vigilant with your hand-washing and those of the healthcare providers caring for your loved one.

Also, if you are a patient who has been prescribed antibiotics, follow your pharmacist’s orders scrupulously and take the medication in the proper dosage and for the proper amount of time.  Stopping antibiotics too soon can leave bacteria alive, which contributes to the evolution of more resistant bacteria.  You may feel better and want to stop the medication, but it is important to take the full dose.

So – now that you know the risks of over-using antibiotics, are you willing to forego antibiotics when you are sick in order to do your part for the greater good?

UPDATE: (Editor – Brian Nash) Within an hour of posting Mike Sander’s blog on MRSA (and CRKP), I came across a tweet about Manuka Honey is being used for dressings to fight the spread of Super Bugs – particularly MRSA.

Researchers now believe that it can also put a stop to the rates at which superbugs are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Anyone know of this practice being used in your area hospital or clinics? Does anyone know if this really works? If so, most interesting and useful. Here to spread the word – how about you spreading it too?

Having an epidural when you deliver your baby? 3 Questions to ask the doctor!

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Be your own advocate - ask questions!

Thousands of women will have an epidural today to help them through their labor, and many of them will have a running epidural after they have their baby delivered. This is especially true in the time period for those who have had a C-Section.

There’s no doubt that epidurals have been a wonderful tool for doctors to provide patients with relief from the pains of labor and the pain and discomfort following delivery – mainly after a C-Section.

Because they have become so commonplace in hospitals throughout this country – and the world – they seem to have been taken for granted as being “safe” – not just effective. For the most part – they are safe, but they clearly have significant risks associated with them.

Some reports claim that the overall complication rate for epidurals is 23%. These complications range from very minor (e.g. some nausea, vomiting, itching, headaches) to the most major of complications – death of the mother and/or her baby. In between these two extremes lie some very devastating injuries to both a mother and her baby. Just some of those reported are damage to the mother’s spinal cord leading to motor (ability to move legs) and/or sensory (ability to feel sensations) injuries, bowel and bladder dysfunction, foot drop and a host of other potential – thankfully rare – complications.

There is a popular book that many expectant mothers have considered their bible over the years – What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is now in it’s fourth edition, according to Amazon.com. While no doubt this has been a valuable resource for many moms-to-be, one medical author takes some exception to the section on epidurals:

Epidural anesthesia has become increasingly popular for childbirth. The popular book, What to Expect when You’re Expecting, for example, portrays epidurals as perfectly safe. The risks, however, may be greatly underplayed.

It’s been many decades (four in one instance) since I personally went through the “birthing” process as a parent-in-waiting. I must admit, I have not purchased or read the latest edition of this book so I cannot vouch that this portrayal of epidurals being “perfectly safe” is still the message of this popular book. Obviously it was at the time of the quote by this Canadian medical writer.)

What expectations do YOU have for your special day?

I suspect that many of you are like I was in envisioning what your experience will be like when the day arrives. You have your bags packed, back-up coverage in place if needed, car gassed. The moment arrives and off to the hospital you go. You register, get in your room, the fetal monitor is applied, and you pass the time remembering (or trying to remember) all those things you learned in your birthing classes. Your epidural is placed and all goes smoothly. Finally, the time comes for you to deliver your new bundle of joy. You make it through some angst of birth, see your new addition through tears of joy and relief and get ready for the onslaught of family and friends, who want to see the new arrival to your family. After you and your baby are cleared for discharge, off you go to your home, ready to begin your “new life” of nurturing, educating, parenting – aglow with images of pride, joy and a world of opportunities ahead. Hopefully, that’s exactly how we all hope it works out for you and your family.

To increase your odds that this scenario plays out, I would strongly suggest that you not take for granted the part about your epidural going smoothly. While there are probably many other questions you may think to ask – or should think to ask – here are three suggestions I have for you based on my seeing (as a lawyer) what can happen when the epidural doesn’t go smoothly.

How an epidural is performed

Here is one example available on the internet (YouTube) to show you just how an epidural is done. Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to understand the speaker (at least for me), but having looked at several videos, I think it gives you a pretty good idea of how this procedure is performed by the anesthesiologist.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WRccCADReY&feature=related

“Have you reviewed my medical history, Doctor? Is there anything else I can tell you?”

Some of the known risks of having epidural anesthesia are connected to your medical history. Sure, you’re assuming that the medical history you gave to your OB during the prenatal visits and to the intake nurse when you arrived at the hospital has found it’s way to your medical record. You’re also assuming that your medical history has been carefully reviewed by the anesthesiologist whose about to put the epidural in your back. Is it there? Has it been carefully reviewed? Ask! There are conditions (e.g. spina bifida, scoliosis, certain heart valve problems, sickle cell anemia, etc.) that can increase your risk of a complication from an epidural.  Are you taking or have you recently taken any type of anti-coagulant such as heparin or coumadin? Make sure your anesthesiologist is aware if this is the case since these drugs can increase the risk of a bleeding complication. You don’t want to have a collection of blood around your spinal cord – believe me!

“When should I expect to move my legs or bend my knees? How long will I feel numb?”

In most instances, epidural are given to provide analgesia – pain relief (sensory block) during labor and at times for post-delivery (C-Section) pain relief. They are not intended to block your motor function – that is, your ability to move your legs, flex your ankles, wiggle your toes, flex your hips or bend your knees. During a C-Section the drugs being used for delivery are many times different drugs from the ones you are getting via your epidural infusion. You will have a different block so that surgery can be performed safely. You will likely have both a sensory and a motor block! You need to understand the difference.

These anesthesia drugs (the ones given during your surgery) will usually wear-off (varies depending on the drugs and from patient to patient) in a period of 1 to 4 hours. You will typically be in a post anesthesia care unit (PACU) during your recovery phase from anesthesia.

Key: you should not be discharged from the PACU if you are unable to at least bend your knees. There is a scoring system (Bromage) that the nurses and personnel in the PACU will typically use after examining your ability to move your legs, bend your knees, wiggle your toes, flex your hips, etc. to determine if you can safely be discharged from the PACU or if you need to be seen by a specialist in anesthesia to determine if you have a potentially significant complication.

“What exactly should I expect to feel like if I have an epidural running after I deliver my baby?”

I simply cannot stress enough how important it is for you to understand exactly how you should be feeling after you have been discharged from the PACU to your room. Don’t ask your family or friends; they don’t know – unless they are anesthesiologists. There are so many free, uneducated opinions out there that are simply wrong!

One further piece of advice: do not ask the nurse what you should expect to feel like. There is absolutely no doubt that there are many  very experienced and highly capable nurses out there taking care of moms. Unless you intend to ask for and analyze your nurse’s background, training and experience in anesthesia, don’t do it. The drugs used in administering epidural analgesia can vary significantly. The dosing (concentration, volume per hour, etc.) can also vary. Only a specialist in anesthesia can answer your questions correctly!

Know what to look for so that if there is some change in your condition or you start to encounter a feeling or loss of function or sensation, you can tell your nurse or doctor immediately so that you can be examined right away!

I suspect many parents are so caught up in the labor process, or are so exhausted after the delivery or so caught up in the wonderment of having their baby that these issues relating to an epidural may not be very important. If you are in your 20′s, 30′s or 40′s, how important is it to you that may not be able to walk for the rest of your life? It can happen – rarely, thank goodness, but it can happen. I have been involved in cases in which this is exactly what happened! Frankly – I don’t want to see it happen to anyone else. It is incredibly tragic for a mom, a dad and their child – trust me!

One last point before we leave this discussion on post-delivery (post-operative) analgesia. Some hospitals (the number appears to be declining due to concerns about the inadequacy of monitoring) use what is known as Patient Controlled Anesthesia epidural analgesia. Simply put, this is a device (they vary depending on the manufacturer) permits the patient to push a button a infuse a pre-determined dose of drugs (e.g. bupivacaine and fentanyl) into the epidural space for additional pain relief. A patient is actually limited as to how much drug can be used in the course of an hour (determined by what in called a lock-out interval and maximum dosing parameters per hour). While a fixed lower amount of drug flows each hour (known as the basal rate), many patients may require more relief than the basal rate provides.

That being said, if you find yourself pushing the PCA button numerous times during the course of an hour, you should bring this to the attention of your nurse or doctor. Don’t wait for them to hopefully check the machine to see how many times you pushed in the last hour (many forget to do this!). Be pro-active. If you are pushing your PCA button a number of times in the course of an hour, even though you can’t really overdose yourself because of pre-set limits by the anesthesiologist, this may be an indication that something needs to be checked. For instance, the catheter may have become displaced; the drugs may not be distributing equally; you may be having some problem that someone needs to investigate. Don’t keep hitting the PCA pump; hit the call button!

Get information about the risks, benefits and alternative to an epidural!

Having been there (i.e. childbirth) as a father four times, I know – at least from my perspective – how difficult it is to concentrate on issues such as risks, benefits and alternatives involving an epidural. Common sense tell me the ideal time to have this discussion simply cannot be while mom is in labor. If that’s the only chance you have, then fine – take the time and make the effort and have a real discussion with the anesthesiologist. Even if you just cover the 3 items I have suggested above, that will take you a long way.

I have made this suggestion before, but I’ll make it again: make arrangements to meet with someone from the anesthesia department before you get to the hospital to delivery your baby. Don’t be shy or concerned that you don’t want to bother anybody. Bother somebody! There really are an awful lot of wonderful doctors and CRNA’s, who would be willing to meet with you, educate you and answer your questions.  It’s your health,  your body, your future – so protect it!

There clearly are more than “3 questions” you should ask. Many of you have been through this. Many of you have medical training and experience. What questions do YOU think a mom-to-be should ask about their epidural.

 


 

IEP’s: Stand Up for Your Child’s Rights – Be Their Best Advocate

Monday, March 14th, 2011

IEP File Folder from KnowledgePoints.com

Recently I wrote a blog about the general difficulties facing parents who are raising a disabled child. This week I want to address one of those specific guidelines – ensuring a quality and appropriate education for your child. For many children with disabilities, they cannot meet the traditional school criteria because of either mental, physical or other special needs. For such children, an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a crucial step. What is an IEP? As the name implies, it is a written education plan that is specifically tailored to your individual child rather than a general plan used for all children. Keep in mind that an IEP is not something that your disabled child may be entitled to. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that IEP’s be developed for all students with disabilities.

Who creates an IEP? For every child, there is an IEP team which generally consists of the following people – the parents, the child’s teacher, the child’s special education provider, a public agency representative and perhaps other providers such as physical therapists. Depending on the age of the child and the specific disability, the child may also be part of the team. I want to emphasize that while the IEP team is filled with so-called experts in education and disability, the most important person on the team is the parent. There are two key points to keep in mind:  1) you, as the parent, are the best advocate for your child; and 2) never be afraid to stand up to the experts.

On the first point, I encourage you to read as much as possible and become informed on the subject, e.g., what new laws are coming out, what new technologies may be available. Only that way can you truly become an advocate for your child. There are a number of excellent sites on the Internet that give a wealth of information (see links below).

Parents of disabled children tell me that they have learned the hard way that there is only one person who truly cares what happens to their child – and that is the parent (or parents as the case may be). It is easy to go into an IEP meeting thinking that the administrators and teachers have your child’s best interest at heart. That’s not necessarily the case. While these people may be caring and decent people, they have other interests to consider – budgets, time constraints, other students, etc. You are the only one who is truly devoted to getting what is best for your child. Also, you are the one who knows your child best.  Just like when you go into a pediatrician’s office and describe your child’s symptoms and behavior, the same is true when attending an IEP meeting. You have interacted with your child more than anyone else. You see changes, skills, abilities (and disabilities) more than the folks who only see your child at school.  Share your knowledge and make sure the IEP team gets the benefit of your expertise as a parent.

On the second point, it can be difficult as a layperson to question those whom we see as experts. We have all been trained to defer to those with more experience. Unfortunately, some “experts” have been trained to talk down to others. A small personal story — years ago I took my grandmother to the doctor for a small skin rash. The doctor said it was psoriasis. I asked him how he knew it was psoriasis and not eczema, a similar skin condition. I will never forget his answer. “Because,” he said, “I’m a doctor.” He may as well have said, “Shut up and don’t question my expertise.” If someone on your IEP team ever adopts such an attitude with you, stand up to that person and demand answers. It is your child whose future is at issue, not the teacher’s.

As for resources, the rise in awareness of disability and IEP’s has created an entire field of special education law. Not that you need an attorney to obtain an IEP, but you should be aware of your child’s legal rights. One excellent resource that comes highly recommended from parents is Wrightslaw.com, which contains a wealth of information on disability law and special education.

No doubt a number of you have had to deal with IEP issues for your child. What has been effective for you in terms of getting the best plan for your child? What hasn’t worked? What legal entanglements have you run into? What advise do you have so that others may benefit?

Some Source References:

For general information on IEP’s (and one with a special focus on Maryland), I would recommend the following sites:

Maryland State Department of Education

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Education.com

Schaffer v Weast (a summary of the Supreme Court’s decision on burden of proof in IEP matters)

 

 

Spinal Epidural Abscess: A basic primer

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Epidural abscess compressing the spinal cord -courtesy of aafp.org

In a previous blog, I introduced the topic of neck and back pain which can have a host of causes, most of which are mechanical.  This blog attempts to explore an infectious etiology of neck and back pain that can be potentially devastating, resulting in paralysis and even death.

The spine is a complicated structure involving bones, discs, ligaments, muscles, blood vessels and nerves.  It’s two main functions are to provide axial support for the upright stature of the human body and fluid movement of the body parts while also protecting or housing a critical component of the central nervous system, the spinal cord. Oversimplified, the spinal cord is a conglomeration of nerve fibers that act as the “information highway” between the peripheral nerves supplying sensory and motor function to the body parts and the brain. The spinal cord transmits chemical messages from the brain, telling the body what to do and how to function, even functions we are not conscious of doing (digestion, breathing, etc.), and it receives input from all of our senses and interprets the data.  Without the spinal cord or if the spinal cord is affected by an injury, there is disconnect; we lose feeling and movement as well as control of some of our normal unconscious body functions.  The location of the spinal cord damage dictates the level at which the disconnect occurs.  To help you understand the anatomy of the spine, here’s a short video describing the basic anatomy of the spine.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zeo0Im7h4Go

 

An epidural abscess is a collection of pus that occurs as the result of an infectious process involving any part of the  spinal cord from the base of the head to the tailbone; the abscess is located within the protective boney compartment housing the spinal cord, the spinal canal, and the thick outer covering of the spinal cord, the dura.  The dura is comprised of 3 layers, the outer one being very tough, the middle one being very vascular, and the inner one being very “tender.”

Signs and Symptoms:

In the early stages of the infection, a patient will often complain of neck or back pain very specific to the location of the infection, but the pain can be referred due to nerve root irritation.  As the infection grows, it spreads along the axial plane of the spinal canal, but the pressure and swelling of the purulent collection also tends to compress the spinal cord, resulting in numbness, tingling and functional loss below the level of the compression.  This progression can be indolent or rapid, depending on both the virulence of the pathogen and the person’s immune system.  Without emergent treatment, the pus collection can “choke off” the spinal cord and its blood supply, leading to permanent spinal cord injury and paralysis.

How does the infection get there?

Patients who have undergone spinal surgery are at an increased risk of these types of infections, especially during the immediate post-operative period.  Surgical wounds can become infected allowing bacteria to track deep into the tissues and the spine through the operative plane.  If hardware (spinal instrumentation) has been used, these man-made devices become reservoirs or fomites for attachment of the bacteria, and it is extremely difficult to eradicate bacterial pathogens from the hardware.

The bloodstream is another source of migration for bacterial pathogens from peripheral sites (infected gums, endocarditis, bladder infection, skin abscesses/boils) to the spine.  Individuals particularly at risk are those with depleted immune systems (e.g. diabetics, patients with auto-immune diseases on chronic steroids, HIV, etc.) and IV drug abusers (directly inject materials into veins).  Having spinal hardware from a previous spine surgery will increase the risk of seeding to that instrumented site should bacteria become blood-borne.

Direct inoculation can occur if  poor technique is utilized during epidural spinal injections or epidural anaesthesia.  There can also be contiguous spread from adjacent infected tissues (e.g. diskitis, osteomyelitis).

What are the most common pathogens?

Staph aureus, a common skin pathogen, is the most common cause.  It is known to cause skin abscesses/boils, wound infections, sinus infections, bladder infections and even pneumonia!  The relatively recent incidence of MRSA (a very resistent variety of Staph aureus) in the community has changed the way medicine treats common skin ailments; its effect on the incidence and treatment of epidural abscesses has yet to be determined.  If an epidural abscess is suspected, antibiotic coverage for MRSA is now automatically included in the initial treatment due to the bacterial virulence and resistance to treatment.

E. coli ( a common bowel pathogen and cause of bladder infection), fungi (like yeast), and even Mycobacterium tuberculosis are also causes of epidural abscess.  One can also contract mixed infections with aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, depending on the source of the infection (intra-abdominal abscess, perforated appendix).

How is an epidural abscess diagnosed?

The clinician must have a high index of suspicion and keep an open mind.  A thorough history often leads to clues such as recent fevers, a recent skin abscess or cellulitis, IV drug abuse, recent dental extraction or procedure, and neck or back pain without a specific inciting incident.  Physical examination of the patient often reveals point tenderness directly over the affected area of the spine, worse with percussion or tapping on the boney prominences, and often worse in the recumbent position.

Visualization of the spine is best accomplished with an MRI of the spine (above, below and including the tender area); it is non-invasive and very detailed regarding the soft tissues.  Patient weight can be a factor in accessing these machines; they often have a maximum weight limit of 300 lbs.  Many morbidly obese patients, who often have type II diabetes, are at risk for epidural abscesses; they often have to be transported to external facilities for “open MRI” studies.  Claustrophobia can also be a restricting factor, often requiring patient sedation or anaesthesia.  Excruciating pain while lying flat can also be prohibitive.  An alternative study to visualize the spinal cord is a CT-myelogram during which the epidural space is accessed with a spinal needle and dye is injected for visualization under computed tomography.  The CT-myelogram is a higher-risk study and can also be limited by a patient’s weight and sensitivity to contrast dye.  A lumbar puncture should NOT be done since it can lead to spinal cord herniation and permanent spinal injury.

What is the treatment for an epidural abscess?

There are two schools of thought regarding treatment.  One school favors emergent surgical debridement of the abscess along with intravenous antibiotics; this also allows for identification and sensitivity testing of the organism.  The other school suggests that intravenous antibiotics alone can be sufficient if no signs of spinal cord impingement are present; if symptoms progress to the development of neurologic symptoms, then surgery becomes more urgent.

What is the prognosis in epidural abscess?

Prognosis depends on the patient’s underlying medical condition and the degree of spinal cord involvement at the time of diagnosis/intervention.  Obviously, the earlier the intervention and treatment, the better the prognosis; hence, I favor surgical debridement as soon as possible.  Delays in diagnosis often lead to permanent and life-altering neurologic damage and functional loss or even death.  These delays and the permanent neurologic sequellae suffered often become the basis for medical malpractice litigation.

Spinal Cord Injury Updates: More Reasons for Optimism?

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Spinal Cord Injury: Image Courtesy of iStockphoto and ScienceDaily

[From the Editor: this piece was written by Sarah Keogh, who is a new member of our legal team. Sarah is a lawyer, who has been advocating for public safety and health for years. We are happy and proud to have Sarah join us. Enjoy and learn from her post on Spinal Cord Injury Updates. We look forward to her future posts here in the Eye Opener - Brian Nash]

Spinal Cord Injury Updates:  Sarah Keogh, Esq.

Two new studies are providing spinal cord injury patients with hope for a future treatment and predictions about current recovery.

I recently came across a New York Times video feature called “Patient Voices: Spinal Cord Injury.” In a series of video clips, several men and women talk about their lives following spinal cord injuries.  The videos are a wonderful window in the resiliency and trials of individuals with spinal cord injuries.

It was wonderful to see two exciting updates this week that may impact the lives of these individuals and countless others like them who have suffered spinal cord injuries. However, they also raised some questions. The first is a new study that is showing promise for future treatment of spinal cord injuries. The research is still advancing, but it gives hope that stem cells may eventually be used to help repair damage to the spinal cord and provide increased functioning. The second is a new test that can predict, with claimed 95% accuracy, which individuals who have suffered a spinal cord injury will ultimately be able to walk again.

Sify News has reported that scientists have discovered “a specific type of human cell” that can “provide tremendous benefit, not only repairing damage to the nervous system but helping the animals regain locomotor function as well.” In a study of rats with spinal cord injuries, the researchers have found that one particular type of human astrocytes, a type of central nervous system cell, “provided extensive benefit, including up to a [70%] increase in protection of injured spinal cord neurons, support for nerve fiber growth and recovery of locomotor function, as measured by a rat’s ability to cross a ladder-like track.”  Perhaps equally important, they discovered that other types of astrocytes and undifferentiated stem cells do not work to provide these improvements. The researchers, scientists from both the University of Colorado School of Medicine and University of Rochester Medical Center, have published their findings in the journal PLoS ONE. (ANI).

Until the research advances enough to help provide treatment and improvement to humans with spinal cord injuries, another new study shows that doctors and scientists have worked to better predict which patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries are likely to walk again.  The findings will be published in The Lancet. The early abstract online explains that the doctors were able to create a rule for predicting an individual patient’s likelihood of being able to eventually walk again after a spinal cord injury.  The “prediction rule” takes into account several factors including the patient’s age and the results from several neurological tests to “give an early prognosis of an individual’s ability to walk after traumatic spinal cord injury, which can be used to set rehabilitation goals and might improve the ability to stratify patients in interventional trials.”  The tests needed to predict which patients will walk can be done within 15 days after the spinal cord injury.  An article from The Press Association reports that the European scientists who have developed this new “technique was [found it to be] highly accurate, getting the prediction right 95% of the time.”  This is significantly better than current methods of guessing what patients may recover the ability to walk.

The question left in my mind, after reading about these advances, relates to the question of optimism.  Several of the individuals in the New York Times videos talked about the progress they have made in their recovery.  They had goals and hopes for reaching new levels of independence and recovery.  If the new prediction tests reveal that a patient has a very poor chance of recovering the ability to walk, will that negatively impact their spirit, drive and mental health in the long road of recovery?  The scientific advances seem to be wonderful for the doctors and rehabilitation specialists, but are they equally wonderful for the individuals coping with a new injury who need to adapt to their new lives?  Perhaps the continuing research into using stem cells can provide hope for these men, women and children, who need continued hope that a prediction at the time of their injury may not be the last word on their hopes for a more complete recovery.

 

The daily struggle of raising a disabled child

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Parents must cope with daily concerns of special needs children

Like many parents, I am blessed to have healthy children.  I take it for granted that my kids are smart, active, well-adjusted.  I don’t even have to think about their health other than the occasional cold or earache or sprained ankle. Others are not so fortunate.

This past weekend I was reading in Maryland Family Magazine an article about a local college professor who wrote a book about raising a son with severe autism.  After writing the book, he assumed that a major publisher would have interest. He ended up being turned down by some agents who told him that without a happy ending or a cure, there was no way they could market the story. Apparently, the public wants stories about disability to have a Hollywood ending. (A publisher finally did come along that agreed to publish the book).

This, in turn, made me think of a good friend of mine (I’ll call her Jane), who has a disabled son (autism spectrum) in addition to three normal children. I hesitate to use the words normal and disabled for two reasons:  1) we live in a politically correct world where deciding what label to apply to anything means stepping into a social minefield; and 2) on the spectrum of mental or physical ability, it can be difficult to say what exactly is normal versus abnormal. I never want to suggest that children with limitations are abnormal. Some parents even bristle at the term “disabled.” Others use the more cumbersome term “neurotypical” rather than the term “normal.” You can see that it can be hard to discuss the topic of disability when we don’t even have terms we can all agree on.

Jane and I often discuss our kids and parenting. She has been very candid with me in describing how incredibly hard it is to raise a disabled child. She believes that no one really wants to hear the negative side of raising a child with special needs. Like the publishing agents that the professor encountered, some people only want to hear about the inspirational side of the story. Truth is, there is not always a happy ending or miracle cure when raising a disabled child, be it autism or cerebral palsy or paraplegia. These are life-long disabilities. There are happy moments, of course, as well as accomplishments both major and minor, but for parents raising a disabled child, it is a daily struggle to make sure that the child gets the medical care and therapy and attention that he or she needs. Parents undertake this monumental and thankless task not because they hope for some Hollywood ending, but because they love their child and they do what they need to do, even if they never knew they had such strength and determination in them.

It’s not all negative, of course. Jane tells me all the time how much she loves her son and how he has taught her so much about herself and about life. She says she cannot imagine who she would be without her son. At the same time, however, she also feels a lot of pain and loss and regret about what she and her family have had to sacrifice in order to care for her disabled son. The daily struggle can truly be overwhelming at times. Jane believes that parents often feel unable to express these feelings for fear of being branded a less-than-stellar parent. As she told me, “There isn’t a safe place to express one’s own doubts about being able to effectively take care of another person who requires so much care. It’s daunting, hard and stressful and for some reason it’s not completely OK to admit that.”  Jane is careful about the sentiments she expresses in public versus those she tells to her friends:

There is the aspect of autism that you are allowed to talk about versus not allowed. I’m allowed to admit it’s hard, but I can’t really say how hard or I’m too negative. I’m just supposed to say it has changed my perspective and I’m blessed.  It has changed my perspective but I’m not blessed. Shut up about being blessed.

While disabilities are all different and every parent’s story is unique, there is a common thread that runs through them all – raising a disabled child takes its toll on the parents and the family as well as the child. The challenges can be enormous. Some of the more common challenges include:

  • Financial:  Finding ways to afford medical care, therapy, services;  working with insurance companies and various state agencies;
  • Educational:  Struggling with teachers and school administrators to make sure that your child is getting an appropriate education and Individualized Education Program or IEP.
  • Medical:  Finding doctors who are willing to take the time to listen to your concerns and diagnose your child; getting referrals to specialists; sorting through the myriad hoops of insurance; finding therapies that work for your child;
  • Social:  The loss of normal everyday activities like going out to dinner, taking trips, seeing friends; not having anywhere to turn to talk about what they are going through.
  • Marital:  A couple often experiences difficulty because of all the other stresses that are created by having a disabled child, as well as the substantial time investment that is required.
  • Family: Other children in the family can be affected because mom and dad have to devote so much time to the disabled child and because the family’s usual routine and activities are disrupted; money can often be tight.
  • Psychological: Many mothers experience feelings of guilt, wondering if it was something they did during pregnancy that caused their child to have this disability.
  • Legal: Figuring out what rights you and your disabled child have, what services you are entitled to.

I can’t say enough about those parents who take on these challenges on a daily basis.  It is difficult to even imagine the level of devotion and commitment that is required.  I welcome all parents to share their stories — the good and the bad — so that the rest of us can try to better understand the reality of raising a disabled child.  In future blogs I will talk about some of these challenges in more detail and where parents can turn for assistance.

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Why do so many patients die when their in-hospital alarms go unheard or unheeded?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

ICU alarm monitor

Sunday’s edition (February 13, 2011) of the the Boston Globe online (boston.com) tells a chilling story of how many times the alarms used to monitor patients go unheard and unheeded by medical staff leading to death or catastrophic injuries for patients throughout this country. The story, which was a two part series (for the second installment, see For nurses, it’s a constant dash to respond to alarms) by Globe reporter Liz Kowalczyk, narrates numerous incidents in which alarms simply went unnoticed, ignored or unmonitored. Numerous other issues such as lack of education of hospital staff as to how to properly connect the devices, failures to realize the batteries had gone dead, turning the alarms so low in volume they could not be heard, taping over amplification systems to avoid the “annoyance” of the alarms and the like are also chronicled in this series. While it is documented by an analysis of the FDA’s database of adverse events involving medical devices that 216 patients died nationwide between 2005 and mid-2010, it is also certain that this number of alarm-related deaths is probably much higher. The ECRI Institute, which was hired by the Globe to analyze the FDA database, believes that the health care industry under-reports these cases to the FDA.

Some examples of alarm-related deaths

Since links to the Globe’s original articles are provided above, I will not go into the level of detail that is otherwise available through reading the original reports. Here is a sampling of the types of “alarm failures” leading to patient deaths:

  • staff misprogrammed complicated monitors
  • staff had forgotten to turn the monitors on
  • batteries had gone dead leading and failed to function (one instance where a man had a “flat line” for more than two hours that went undetected)
  • defective wires or connections on the monitors
  • malfunction or design flaws in the monitoring devices
  • staff ignored the device warnings because of “alarm fatigure

Alarm Fatigue

According to one computation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in one 15 bed unit as to how often alarms go off during the course of day, it was documented that there were 942 alarms per day – “about 1 critical alarm every 90 seconds.” There is no doubt that the number of alarms and the clinical settings in which they are used have increased over the years. As Ms. Kowalczyk noted, “[W]ith the use of monitors rising, their beeps can become so relentless, and false alarms so numerous, that nurses can become desensitized – sometimes leaving patients to die without anyone rushing to their bedside.”

In some cases, busy nurses have not heard or ignored alarms warning of failing batteries or other problems not considered life-threatening. But even the highest-level crisis alarms, which are typically faster and higher-pitched, can go unheeded. At one undisclosed US hospital last year, manufacturer Philips Healthcare, based in Andover, found that one of its cardiac monitors blared at least 19 dangerous-arrhythmia alarms over nearly two hours but that staff, for unexplained reasons, temporarily silenced them at the central nursing station without “providing therapy warranted for this patient.’’ The patient died, according to Philips’s report to federal officials.

Keep in mind that many of these alarms are not only audible in the patient rooms; they also sound at the central nurse’s station. In some instances, hospitals have put up hallway speakers for nurses to hear the alarms more readily. In other facilities, in addition to audible alarms, various pieces of critical data information (e.g. heart rhythm, heart rate) are visible on displays at nurses stations and in some places, it is reported, “on brightly colored scrolling signs in corridors.”

The article quotes one nurse at Boston Medical Center, who addresses some of the issues at the heart of this “alarm fatigue” phenomenon.

Everyone who walks through the door gets a monitor. We have 17 [types of alarms that can go off at any time. They all have different pitches and different sounds. You hear alarms all the time. It becomes...background

False Alarms - the cry wolf issue

It is well known that some alarms can go off when a patient sits up, coughs, turns or makes other normal movements. According to the Globe report, "'[s]ome studies have found that more than 85 percent of the alarms are false.” I have no idea how this statistic was compiled, but even if it is accurate (which is debatable), that still leaves dozens if not hundreds (if not thousands) of alarms going off daily in every hospital throughout this country that are an indication of a patient in need of rapid response life-saving care.

Another nurse is quoted by the Globe in expressing both the frustration and the need for attentiveness when the alarm goes off. “You have to respond to the alarm[, b]ut there are some days when you feel you’re just running from alarm to alarm. It can be exasperating.”

The Fix

The short answer appears to be: there is no easy, quick fix. Here are some of the measures institutions have taken to address this problem:

  • working with engineers at prestigious institutions (e.g. MIT’s work with Boston’s Children’s Hospital) to develop more sophisticated monitors to identify true crisis alarms.
  • hiring of dedicated monitor technicians and/or nurses, who man the central nurses’ station to triage alarms.
  • specialized education programs to avoid misprogramming or connection mistakes due to lack of knowledge by staff
  • establishing tighter standards of which patients should be connected to alarmed monitors – to cut down on the “background noise” of alarms.
  • replacement of old equipment for more advanced, accurate alarm/monitor systems
  • implementation of new programs in-hospital to require bioengineers to check the monitors daily to make sure they are working properly.
  • implementation of standardized settings on machines so that alarms are not turned so low they are non longer audible. (One case of a patient death was attributed to staff turning the the “vexatious” alarm down to a 40% of full volume – no one responded to an arrhythmia alarm for 40 minutes because no one heard the reduced volume alarm during that time.)
  • changing batteries every day in monitors to make sure they are, in fact, charged and working

The Blame Game

As you might suspect, the finger-pointing that takes place after a patient is found dead or severely injured is rampant. As the Globe reports, “Initially, hospitals almost always blame the monitor’s alarm for not sounding when it should have, according to reports. But the company investigations show the assertion is often false.”

In 40 of the cases reviewed by the Globe, the alarms did not sound, usually because the staff had not properly programmed or turned on the machines.; in only eight cases was there a malfunction or design flaw.

[I]n nearly 100 cases, manufacturers ere unable to determine exactly what went wrong, often because they didn’t have enough information, or they told federal regulators they still were reviewing the death.

Where to from here?

While I certainly don’t have to contend with the incessant noise of alarms going off all day long, nor am I required to jump away from what I’m doing to respond to a false alarm, I can’t help but think that in a health industry as advanced as ours allegedly is, there must be some steps that can readily be taken so that others don’t die because some nurse has “alarm fatigue,” or a battery died, or the volume was turned down too low to avoid the annoyance of the alarm or some other ill-conceived and unacceptable reason.

What suggestions do you have for the healthcare industry to deal with this problem? Have you ever worked in a setting where this is a problem? If so, how did you and/or your institution deal with this issue? There are a lot of smart people in bioengineering and in our health institutions; why is this still such a problem in a country that claims to be so advanced?

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A Surgeon’s Sleep Deprivation and Elective Surgery – Not a good (or safe) combination

Friday, January 14th, 2011

The New England Journal of Medicine published a Perspective on December 30, 2010, that screams common sense and should be embraced as a starting point to implement some new patient-safety standards of practice.

Place yourself in the position of a patient getting ready to undergo an elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgical procedure. You’re wheeled into the operating room for your surgery and are greeted by your surgeon in the process. Your mind is focused on just coming out alive and better than when you went in. What you don’t know, however, is your surgeon has been up all night handling a busy call schedule. If you knew he/she was dead tired as any human being would be under the circumstances, would you really want this surgeon operating on you? If you don’t care, then this post is really of no interest to you. If you do care, then read on.

Well, you’re still reading…so you must have some level of concern for your safety. Good for you because here’s a startling number in terms of adverse incidents when involving sleep deprived surgeons:

Researchers have documented the adverse effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders on individual performance. In surgery, there is an 83% increase in the risk of complications (e.g., massive hemorrhage, organ injury, or wound failure) in patients who undergo elective daytime surgical procedures performed by attending surgeons who had less than a 6-hour opportunity for sleep between procedures during a previous on-call night.

Note that this relates to elective surgery – you elected to have it; it is not an emergency. Sure, if the surgery has to be rescheduled, that’s a major inconvenience and not emotionally satisfying after you have prepared yourself for the “magic hour” when you are to be taken to the operating room. In most surgeries, you have not been allowed to eat since midnight (NPO status) if you are going to be anesthetized during your surgery. But let me ask – would you rather be inconvenienced or suffer from “a massive hemorrhage, organ injury, or wound failure” – to name but a few of the things that could go wrong at the hands of a sleep deprived surgeon?

The NEJM article reports that “most patients would be concerned about their safety if they knew their doctor had been awake for the prior 24 hours.” I really don’t think they needed a survey to reach that conclusion. Do you?

So how is this risky situation supposed to be avoided? Are you supposed to ask your surgeon: “So did you get a good night’s sleep?” Or – “How you feeling today, Doc? Well rested?” While some more assertive patients might take this approach, way too many, I’m afraid, would just “trust” their doctor to know  better than to operate under such a condition and advise the patient now is not a good time for him/her to do the surgery. In an ideal world, that’s what should happen – but we don’t inhabit such a world now do we? For whatever motivation – some good; some not so good, I sincerely doubt this is going to happen and certainly should not be the standard. In fact, the following excerpt from the NEJM piece addresses this very issue – at least in part:

Chronic sleep deprivation degrades one’s ability to recognize the impairments induced by sleep loss.5 Sleep-deprived clinicians are therefore not likely to assess accurately the risks posed when they perform procedures in such a state, and they should not be permitted to decide whether or not to proceed with elective surgery without obtaining the patient’s informed consent.

That’s a start, but frankly, I’m not really a big advocate of this approach. Obtaining my informed consent? So what happens – I’m told as I’m awaiting my surgery that my doctor has been up all night and the prior day. He then asks, “Are you willing to have your surgery anyway?” I then ask: “Well how are you feeling? Are you up to doing this?” If I get an affirmative response, why should the burden be on me (read: YOU in this scenario) to make a decision if it’s alright to proceed?

I much prefer the primary suggestion of the authors:

As a first step, we recommend that institutions implement policies to minimize the likelihood of sleep deprivation before a clinician performs elective surgery and to facilitate priority rescheduling of elective procedures when a clinician is sleep-deprived. In addition, patients should be empowered to inquire about the amount of sleep their clinicians have had the night before such procedures.

While I say I “prefer” this approach of “implementing policies to minimize the likelihood of sleep deprivation,” I would modify this “recommendation” to read – “to implement policies to eradicate the likelihood of sleep deprivation or in those instances where certain “sleep guidelines” have not been met, to mandate the rescheduling of this elective surgery. Note that the latter part of this “first step” recommendation puts the burden back on the patient “to inquire about the amount of sleep their clinicians have had the night before such procedures.” Same issues; same problems. The patient should not be put in this position. The hospitals ought to be protecting the patient in such situations, not empowering them – whatever that means!

This is a problem whose solution is not that complex. It is a problem whose solution is way too long overdue. I would urge the medical profession and hospital  administrators to stop trying to be “balanced” on this issue. Sure it’s an inconvenience for all concerned. No doubt this can wreak havoc in terms of a hospital’s operating room scheduling. Too bad! Figure out ways to deal with “call schedules” then. Don’t place the onus on the patient. The health industry claims it is constantly in search of ways to improve safety. Well isn’t this a pretty simple issue to tackle if that’s the case?

What are your thoughts on this issue? Would you be concerned if the person holding the surgical instrument for your procedure has sleep deprivation? Would you ask the questions about their sleep patterns or how much sleep they got the night before? Should this be a patient’s burden? What policies make sense? Share your thoughts with our readers. Maybe – just maybe – the right people might read your comments and come up with some solid policies to protect all of us in such circumstances.

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Study reveals “staggering” statistics on Medicare patients who will die or be readmitted within one year of stroke

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Today I came across an excellent post in theheart.org entitled “Death and readmission rates after stroke “staggering” for Medicare Patients.” As a general comment, if you are not familiar with this online journal, I would strongly recommend you register (it’s free). They post a number of excellent pieces on a consistent basis.

Dr. Gregg Fonarow and colleagues did a study examining the outcomes for 91,134 Medicare patients, who had suffered an ischemic stroke between April 1, 2003 and December 31, 2006. The researchers themselves described their findings as “staggering.” Here is the essential finding:

Almost two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries discharged from the hospital after suffering an ischemic stroke die or are readmitted within a year.

Does the type of hospital make a difference?

While ostensibly not the major focus of the study, Dr. Fonarow’s research team did examine data to determine if the outcomes were significantly better if the patient was seen for the initial acute ischemic stroke at an academic center versus a non-academic (e.g. community hospital). The finding in this regard was not what I expected.

Rates were only slightly lower for academic hospitals than nonacademic centers. “That was surprising,” said Fonarow. “Whether a hospital was academic or bedside or, more important, a joint commission primary stroke center really did not make a large difference in outcomes.”

The impact on the healthcare system is obvious and alarming

I don’t claim to have any expertise in statistical analysis or application of such data to a system-wide root cause analysis. That being said, does it really take a statistician or mathematician to grasp the import of this “staggering” data? If you or someone you know is on Medicare and has suffered an acute ischemic stroke, there is a 2 out of 3 chance you (or the person you know) will be readmitted or die within one year of suffering that stroke!

The big questions: Why and What can be done?

Dr. Fonarow readily admits that the data he collected does not lend itself to the ultimate answers. What he does note, however, is that while further studies are clearly warranted, since more than one-half of the cases for readmission analyzed involved non-cardiovascular causes, “there’s room for better secondary-prevention efforts.”

“When you looked at causes of readmission, in many cases it was not a recurrent stroke or cardiovascular event but other comorbid conditions, such as pneumonia, falls, and GI bleeds,” he said. “It shows you that when caring for someone after a stroke, managing these comorbid conditions and related risks is going to be critical.”

He added that the period after discharge for an ischemic stroke offers a “window of opportunity” for interventions to reduce the burden of post-ischemic stroke morbidity and mortality.

The information shared by Dr. Fonarow is unequivocally “staggering.” One can only hope that further system-wide studies are performed soon to identify what improvements can and need be made in the delivery of health care to this population to reduce such loss of life and burden on the healthcare system secondary to readmissions.

What’s your reaction to Dr. Fonarow’s study? Are you aware of any data that is known for death and readmission rates in the non-Medicare population? If there is a significant difference in death and readmission rates between Medicare and non-Medicare patients, what is being done in the non-Medicare population that can be adopted for all patient populations?

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Epidural Analgesia – What Should an Expectant Mother Consider? What are the risks?

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Statistics show that about 70% of women in the U.S. elect to have epidural analgesia during labor. While epidural analgesia is very effective at helping women cope with the pain of labor, it is important to have an appreciation for the possible complications associated with such medical treatment.  If you are an expectant mother, the last thing you want to do is think about the possible risks of epidural analgesia – while you are in labor.  The decision to have epidural analgesia during labor should not be a hasty, last minute decision.  The following is a survey of a number of complications associated with epidural analgesia.  It is intended to provide expectant mothers with a general understanding of the various complications associated with epidural analgesia and to encourage further inquiry.

It is important to know that epidural analgesia may cause infection (i.e., epidural abscess). An epidural abscess is a collection of pus in the epidural space.  As the abscess gets larger, it will eventually compress the spinal cord resulting in neurological deficits (e.g., numbness and/or weakness in the legs). An epidural abscess requires immediate medical intervention.

Moreover, be aware that certain patients with blot clotting disorders are at a higher risk for bleeding (i.e., epidural hematoma). Women who are on blood thinners (e.g., Lovenox) or who are otherwise hypocoagulable are at an increased risk for developing hematomas during epidural infusions. Epidural hematomas may also cause spinal cord compression leading to potential paralysis.

Because the epidural space is only a few millimeters wide, there is a risk that the needle used to gain access to the epidural space may cross into the subdural and/or subarachnoid space.  The administration of epidural anesthesia beyond the epidural space may lead to a number of very serious complications.  When epidural anesthetic agents are administered beyond the epidural space, a patient may experience low blood pressure,   difficulty breathing, loss of motor function and sensation, nausea, loss of consciousness and even cardiac arrest.   The puncture of the dura may lead to an outflow of cerebral spinal fluid into the epidural space.  When this happens, patients complain of severe headaches, which could take days or weeks to resolve.

The inadvertent administration of an excessive amount of epidural agents may cause nerve damage as well.   Anesthesiologists are very careful to select the right epidural drugs based on the patient’s medical history, comorbidities, age, height, and weight.   The key to avoiding epidural toxicity is making sure that the proper dosage of an epidural medication is administered.  In part, this involves a determination of the acceptable dosage per unit of body weight (i.e., ml/kg).  Epidural toxicity may lead to permanent loss of motor function and sensation in the lower extremities.  If you elect to have epidural analgesia, demand to be evaluated and monitored by an anesthesiologist or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) during the epidural infusion and throughout the anesthesia recovery period.

Some patients may be allergic to certain epidural agents.  Because most epidural administrations involve a cocktail of different medications (e.g., fentanyl and bupivacaine), an anesthesiologist should be familiar with the patient’s history of allergies.  If you are considering epidural analgesia, make sure that you are not allergic to “caine” drugs or opiates.

Epidural analgesia may also make it more difficult to push during labor. Consequently, the use of epidural analgesia may lead to other medical interventions, including the use of Pitocin and a Caesarean section.

If you are an expectant mother, talk to your obstetrician about the risks associated with epidural analgesia.  The decision to proceed with epidural analgesia should be a considered decision.  Your physician can avoid some, if not most, complications associated with epidural analgesia by performing a proper and thorough assessment of your risk factors and by carefully monitoring you during labor and the recovery period.

Have you or someone you know had any complication associated with an epidural? Share your story with our readers. We welcome your comments.