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Bariatric surgery patients face potentially deadly surgical error risks

Bariatric surgery can give a new lease on life to an obese patient, but surgical errors can prove just as deadly as the extra weight.

In order to qualify for gastric bypass, adjustable gastric banding, vertical sleeve gastrectomy or other bariatric surgeries, patients must be morbidly obese or have a moderately high body mass index (BMI) and serious other health conditions. Once a patient has become overweight to the point that he or she is seriously considering bariatric surgery, health concerns like diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea, high blood pressure or high cholesterol could already be present.

Unfortunately, the combination of preexisting health conditions, powerful anesthesia and invasive surgery adds up to a higher risk of complications for some patients. Adding fuel to the proverbial fire of potential unforeseen consequences is the risk of surgical errors that could occur during one of these delicate operations.

Differences between common types of bariatric surgery

The least-invasive bariatric surgery performed in America is the adjustable gastric band (sometimes referred to by the brand names Lap-Band or Realize). These devices are implanted laparoscopically through a few tiny incisions in the abdomen. This surgery places a small band of surgical-grade silicone around a portion of the stomach to form a "pouch" in which only a small amount of food can sit.

Another surgical technique gaining ground in bariatric treatment clinics around the country is known as a "vertical sleeve gastrectomy." This involves the removal of about 80 percent of the stomach without otherwise upsetting the intestines or other elements of the gastrointestinal system. Like an adjustable gastric band, this method is "restrictive" in nature, and is designed to keep the patient from taking in too many calories.

Perhaps the most common bariatric surgery in the U.S. and much of the world is the gastric bypass. This is a much more invasive surgery than either the band or sleeve, and involves making a tiny stomach pouch about the size of an egg and re-routing part of the intestinal tract to connect with the new stomach. The remainder of the stomach is stapled off so that food no longer enters it for digestion. This surgery both restricts the amount of food that a patient can eat and the number of calories he or she will be able to absorb from food.

Potential risks

There are risks with any surgical procedure, including loss of blood, infection, bad reactions to medication, retention of surgical instruments, formation of scar tissue and more. The likelihood of complications can rise dramatically, though, if patients have preexisting conditions or if surgeons and other operating room staff act negligently.

For example, a surgeon could accidentally knick a blood vessel while attempting to staple the new stomach pouch during a gastric bypass and a patient could bleed internally or even die if that error isn't caught and addressed immediately. If the anesthesiologist isn't carefully monitoring the patient's condition, the patient could go into cardiac arrest or suffer brain damage from insufficient oxygen. Should a nurse mis-count, a surgical implement like a retractor, clamp or sponge could be left inside a patient.

All these risks are more likely in severely overweight patients like the ones undergoing bariatric surgery. Obese patients have greater deposits of fatty tissue in the liver, lining of the abdominal cavity and surrounding vital organs that could impede the surgeon's view of internal structures.

Have you or a loved one been harmed by a doctor, nurse or medical facility's negligence during a bariatric surgery? If so, speak with an experienced medical malpractice or personal injury attorney in your area to learn more about legal rights and options available to hold the at-fault parties responsible.

Keywords: medical malpractice, surgical error, bariatric surgery, anesthesia error

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