An embolism is caused when an object, called an “embolus,” blocks blood flow in one of the veins or arteries of the body.
Modern medicine has come a long way since its beginning with Hippocrates and his groundbreaking, yet sometimes stomach-churning, diagnostic methods. Where once our humors were balanced with leeches and diseases were prevented by huffing bags of potpourri, now we have antibiotics to cure most of the known deadly infections and intricate surgeries to correct internal wrongs. But, like any great technological leap forward, new and unexpected problems arise that doctors and nurses must take pains to prevent, lest they be found liable for potentially life-ending injuries to their patients. These injuries are myriad, but this post is about a relatively rare, yet possibly devastating injury. It is called an air embolism.
Bubbles in the Blood
Embolisms are not uncommon. An embolism is caused when an object, called an “embolus,” blocks blood flow in one of the veins or arteries of the body. The embolus could be a blood clot, as caused by deep vein thrombosis, or an errant globule of fat cells. Some embolisms, however, are caused by bubbles of air.
Air embolisms in the bloodstream are most commonly seen in deep sea divers. When one dives to over 100 feet below the surface, gas that is exhaled is done so forcefully. Some of the gas expelled dissolves into the water, which is then reabsorbed through the diver’s skin. At the high pressure levels at which the diver is underwater, the gas in his bloodstream is more or less dormant. However, if the diver surfaces quickly, the effect of the gas in his blood stream is similar to that of a bottle of soda water suddenly opened: the gas expands and turns into bubbles. Bubbles in the blood stream from diving can be extremely painful or deadly. The condition is called the bends, and is entirely preventable. Other air embolisms, however, can be caused due to a surgeon’s negligence.
Air Embolisms in the OR
Intravenous injections are common in the operating room. Indeed, as soon as many patients are admitted to the hospital, they are placed on an IV saline drip. As long as the injection is passive, like a saline drip, or if an injection of drugs from a syringe has no air bubbles in it, there is no danger. However, a tiny bubble introduced into the vein can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, or, if the bubble gets to the heart or brain, death.
Another possibility is intubation and ventilation. Often, patients are unable to breathe on their own. A ventilator can breath for them, but the tube must be inserted into the windpipe correctly. If the tube is inserted incorrectly, and ventilation commences, bubbles can form in the lungs.
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