Prima ballerina Phyllis Spira died this week after developing a blood clot following an emergency leg operation.
A leg operation should not be life threatening, but this is a tragic demonstration of the fact that every operation carries risks: even people going in for minor surgery can develop complications that turn out to be fatal.
"All operations can be dangerous," says Dr Bets Breedt, Health24's CyberDoc. "When anaesthesia is involved, there is always the risk that the patient can have an allergic reaction to it. Other possible complications involve irregular heart rhythm, during the operation, or a lack of oxygen flow to the lungs, because of incorrect insertion of airflow pipes."
She also mentioned excessive bleeding and the formation of blood clots as potentially fatal complications of operations – and indeed it is this that killed Spira.
Hospitals full of germs
Contrary to what we'd like to think, hospitals are not sterile places. There are lots of germs about – virulent ones, according to Breedt. "The germs lurking in hospitals are often also resistant to antibiotics, which make infections caused by them all the more difficult to treat."
This is the reason why many people develop so-called hospital-acquired infections when they go in for sometimes minor procedures.
Breedt also mentions that complications can arise when a doctor and a patient are unaware of existing medical problems.
Certain rare genetic aberrations can lead to someone having an allergic reaction to anaesthetic, or to the muscle relaxant that is administered prior to an operation. Breedt also mentioned that many people in South Africa suffer from porphyria, which means that they are unable to deal with anaesthetic.
"Before you have any operation, it is a good idea to ask around in the family whether anyone has had a bad reaction to anaesthetics, or to injected muscle relaxants. If so, do alert your doctor before the operation – it might save your life," says Breedt.
She quotes her former university professor, Professor Hennie Bekker: "An operation is something which should be earned." In other words, procedures under anaesthetics should not be taken lightly, and must be really necessary.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24 March 2008)