A coma can be a frightening experience for the person who lived through it, or for his or her family while it’s happening and afterward. Coma is a response to a very serious illness or injury — so serious that the brain has to shut down consciousness. Most people wake up from a coma after a few days or a few weeks, but they can feel lasting physical, mental, and emotional effects.
When a coma is caused by the negligence of a medical provider, emotions can be fraught. The doctor or nurse who made the mistake was entrusted to help the patient, but instead made decisions or took actions that resulted in a potentially life threatening condition.
If you or a loved one experienced a coma because of a health provider’s negligence, you may have a claim for medical malpractice. You may be able to recover compensation for medical costs, lost income, pain and suffering, loss of normal life, and disability and disfigurement. An experienced Chicago medical malpractice attorney can go over your options and help you through the process if you decide to pursue a claim.
What is a Coma?
In short, a coma is when someone is unconscious and unresponsive to his or her surrounding environment. When someone is in a coma, they can’t be woken, and don’t react to stimuli such as lights or sounds or pain such as being pricked with a sharp needle. They can’t move voluntarily, although sometimes a person who is in a coma may experience involuntary reflexive motions.
A coma may last a few days or a few weeks. Some people experience a full recovery and others may have lasting damage and difficulties with everyday functions. The sooner someone wakens from a coma, the better the odds of full recovery.
Some people never wake from a coma and instead progress to what is known as a persistent vegetative state, in which they may be able to open their eyes or appear to be responding but are not truly aware of themselves or their surroundings. In some cases, a person who is in a coma long-term may eventually experience brain death.
Medical Causes of Coma
Most of the time, a coma is the result of very serious illness or physical trauma to the brain that causes the brain to shut down many functions. Some common medical reasons for coma include:
- Diabetes — When blood sugar climbs too high (hyperglycemia) or drops too low (hypoglycemia), the person can go into a coma.
- Trauma — When accidents cause traumatic brain injuries, coma may be the result.
- Brain Tumor — When tumors grow in the brain or on the brain stem, coma may be a consequence.
- Alcohol or Substance Abuse — When a person overdoses on drugs or alcohol, that may cause a coma.
- Lack of Oxygen — When the flow of oxygen to the brain is interrupted, a coma may result.
- Stroke — During a stroke, blood flow to the brain may be interrupted and result in coma.
Medically Induced Comas
Sometimes doctors will use drugs to put a patient into a coma because they believe that’s the best way to allow the brain to heal from an injury. This is typically done with common anesthesia drugs used at a different dosage than when someone is anesthetized for surgery.
Putting a patient into a medically induced coma is a delicate process that requires diligent monitoring. The drugs used to induce comas may cause low blood pressure, which can be fatal if it drops too low. If a doctor doesn’t adequately monitor the person during the coma, or leaves them in a comatose state for too long, the person may suffer brain damage or other injuries.
How Malpractice Can Cause Comas
A coma is on the extreme end of possible results of medical malpractice, but it nonetheless is a very real possibility when a doctor, surgeon, nurse, hospital, or other medical professional makes a mistake. Some ways that medical negligence could result in a coma include:
- Failure to Diagnose or Treat a Medical Condition — When a physician or other medical provider fails to diagnose health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, coma can be a consequence. A diabetic person may go into a coma when blood sugar is too high, and high blood sugar is inevitable when diabetes goes untreated. Untreated high blood pressure can lead to stroke, which in turn can lead to coma when the brain can’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to function.
- Surgery or Anesthesia Errors — Mistakes made during surgery could lead to the brain not getting enough blood or oxygen, and coma may be the result.
- Medication Errors — Overdosing on certain medications may cause coma. When a doctor, nurse, or other medical provider prescribes too high a dose of a drug and coma is the result, the provider may be guilty of malpractice.
Risks of Coma
When a person is in a coma, it’s usually because of some kind of very serious trauma or illness that causes the brain to shut down conscious functions. This may be so the brain can conserve resources in favor of healing, and there are people who wake up and regain full functions after a coma, although that may be a slow process. However, there also are many people who suffer neurological impairment and experience lasting mental or physical disabilities after waking from a coma.
There also are a number of complications that can occur during a coma, particularly if they are unconscious for a lengthy period of time. Those include:
- Infections or Pneumonia
- Permanent Muscle Contractions
- Bone and Muscle Deformities
- Cognitive Damage
- Brain Death