After dental patient dies following routine procedure, widow calls for changes to anesthesia requirements

Dr. Patel's widow calls for changes to dental anesthesia requirements
Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 3:32 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The North Carolina Dental Board is considering making sweeping changes to the way sedation dentistry is performed.

The death of a well respected and greatly loved cardiologist in Wilmington during a routine dental procedure helped spur this movement. The circumstances surrounding Henry Patel’s death will likely be discussed during the Board’s hearing Thursday night to consider changes to their sedation rules.

Patel was put under anesthesia on July 30, 2020, for a dental implant, and never regained consciousness. When patients are put under anesthesia for medical procedures, an anesthesiologist or Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) must be present in case something goes wrong. However, that safeguard is not in place for dentists and oral surgeons, and Shital Patel thinks it cost her husband his life.

“I never thought I would go into a dental office and come back a widow. Who has to do that at age 47? But I would never even see him speak or open his eyes again,” Shital Patel said through tears, remembering the shocking outcome of her husband’s dental appointment.

She was waiting in the lobby that day, and couldn’t understand why the procedure that was supposed to take just 20 or 30 minutes had been taking much longer. When she went to ask about the delay for the third time, she realized something had gone horribly wrong.

“They are like, ‘We are handling it, we have a crash cart ready, we’ve called 911.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean you’ve called 911? What’s happening?’” Shital recalled.

Investigators from the dental board would later discover that in the panicked minutes after dental staff realized Henry Patel was in distress, his oral surgeon Dr. Mark Austin tried and failed to place an endotracheal tube, and never even attempted CPR. Paramedics were finally able to regain a pulse, but Patel had been deprived of oxygen so long, he was brain dead. After several agonizing days in the hospital, his family took him off life support.

Shital would later learn her husband was one of at least four people in North Carolina who have died in just the last several years after receiving dental anesthesia. Patel’s medical partner filed a complaint with the dental board, and his friends and family are now working to change the way anesthesia is performed in dental offices across the state.

“Nobody should have to go through what we are going through, and what the other families are going through because it’s preventable,” Shital told WECT. “If you are going to do deep sedation, and we are not saying you shouldn’t do it, all we are saying is have a CRNA or anesthesiologist present. Because you as an oral surgeon or anybody in the field cannot be paying attention to what you are doing, important work inside a patient’s mouth, and monitoring the numbers, and looking out for vital signs.”

Requiring trained personnel to be present during dental anesthesia would come at a significant cost that would either have to be absorbed by dental providers, or passed along to patients. But Shital Patel says the cost of doing nothing, and allowing senseless deaths to continue, is much too great.

“You took away a very, very good human being who had so much more to give,” Patel said.

The dental board hearing was held Thursday night. The public comments period is open until March.

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