Clinical Case of the Month:  A 5-year-old boy is scheduled for general anesthesia for a cochlear implant.  On your pre-operative phone call to the mother, she tells you that after the same surgery on the other ear, the child was severely agitated in the Recovery Room.  The last anesthesiologist told her that agitation was a common side effect for the sevoflurane anesthetic that was used.  What will you do?

Discussion:  How about this plan:  You obtain the old anesthesia record, duplicate the technique exactly, and give earplugs to everyone within ten yards of the Recovery Room?  Don’t buy it?  Read on.

Before you begin, a colleague says,  “Who cares about crying?  As long as the anesthetic care is safe, crying in the PACU is no big deal.  It’s a sign of an adequate airway.”  He continues:  “Why, I went on an Interplast trip fixing cleft palates in South America, and all the kids screamed in the Recovery Room.  They all survived.”

I’ve got news for him — a screaming child in the Recovery Room is a problem for several people:  the nurse, the mother of the child (she’s freaking out herself), the attending anesthesiologist (who, by inference, looks like he doesn’t know how to finish an anesthetic), and every other PACU patient within earshot.  I’d submit that the goals of a 21st Century anesthetic go beyond safety — patients or their families feel entitled to wake up as pain-free, nausea-free, and side-effect-free as possible.

Sevoflurane was introduced in Japan in the late 1980’s and in the United States in the 1990’s (Miller’s Anesthesia, 2005, p. 18).  Because of its low solubility, sevoflurane represented a significant advance over isoflurane, which dominated the inhaled anesthetic market prior to that time.  In addition to its low solubility, sevoflurane was less pungent than isoflurane and could be used instead of halothane for inhalational induction in children.  As well, sevoflurane had a lower incidence of cardiac arrhythmias than halothane.  These properties made sevoflurane the drug of choice for inhalation induction in children (Johannesson GP, Acta Anaesthesiol Scand. 1995 May;39(4):546-50).

Soon after its introduction into clinical practice, reports of sevoflurane and post-operative agitation and delirium in preschool patients began to appear in the anesthesia literature.  The described agitation was unrelated to pain, was inversely related to age, and was most frequent in children 5 years of age or younger.  (Miller’s Anesthesia, 2005, p. 2373).   Emergence delirium with sevoflurane exceeded the rate of emergence delirium with halothane.  Aono reported a 40% incidence of delirium during recovery in preschool boys aged 3 – 5 years old who underwent urologic surgery under sevoflurane, vs. a 10% incidence of delirium for those who were anesthetized with halothane (Anesthesiology, 1997 Dec;87(6):1298-300).

A variety of remedies appeared in the peer-reviewed literature over the ensuing years.  A complete discussion of all reported techniques is beyond the scope of this short column.  I refer you to PubMed with the keywords sevoflurane, agitation, where you’ll find multiple references to support multiple techniques.  Statistical significance was obtained in controlled studies with the following techniques either before or after sevoflurane induction:  use of oral midazolam prior to induction; use of a single dose of fentanyl 1 mcg/kg ten minutes prior to emergence;  conversion to propofol infusion anesthesia after induction;  conversion to isoflurane anesthesia after induction;  conversion to desflurane anesthesia after induction;  use of IV dexmedetomidine 0.3 – 0.5 mcg/kg after induction;  use of PO clonidine premedication 4 mcg/kg before induction;  or use of IV clonidine 2 mcg/kg immediately after induction.

I polled my private practice Stanford Adjunct Clinical Faculty colleagues on their preferred methods to minimize pediatric emergence delirium, and three strategies prevailed:  1) the use of heavy midazolam premedication (up to .8 mg/kg);  2) the use of titrated doses of intravenous fentanyl or meperidine prior to emergence; and 3) discontinuance of sevoflurane after inhalation induction — instead substituting isoflurane or propofol for maintenance anesthesia.  No one used dexmedetomidine or clonidine.

Let’s return to your 5-year-old patient.  You decide to utilize all three options described in the previous paragraph.  You begin with the oral midazolam premedication 20 minutes prior to induction.  (Because the duration of this surgery is estimated to be 90 minutes, you realize that most of the effect of the midazolam premed will be dissipated at the time of emergence.)   After an uneventful sevoflurane mask induction, you place an I.V. and intubate the trachea.  At this point you turn off the sevo and switch to isoflurane.  Cochlear implant surgery involves drilling into the skull, and despite use of local anesthesia by the surgeon, you can anticipate post-operative pain.  It seems prudent to use a narcotic to treat both pain and delirium.  At the conclusion of the anesthetic, you administer doses of 5 mg of meperidine, titrated to the child’s respiratory rate.  After extubation, you supplement with additional narcotic as needed to affect comfort and tranquility.  Because both the surgery and the anesthetic technique may stimulate post-operative nausea or vomiting, you administer doses of I.V. ondansetron and metoclopramide for nausea prophylaxis.  You request the mother sit at the bedside in the PACU as soon as the child begins to reawaken, as a humane non-pharmacologic method of easing the child’s emotional discomfort .

There are no trophies given for rapid wake-ups in the pediatric PACU.  Your technique produces a gradual calm emergence characterized by safe maintenance of the airway and a relaxed, comfortable child.   The 5-year-old’s mother is thrilled with the improvement over the last anesthetic, and the PACU nurses respect that you care about the quality of your patient’s wake-up.

Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:



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