Clinical Case of the Month:  You’re medical director for a busy outpatient surgery center.  An RN routinely does the preoperative screening by telephoning each patient two days prior to surgery.  The RN pages you with this question:  A 48-year-old patient scheduled for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery takes hydrochlorothiazide for hypertension, and has not had electrolytes checked for six months.  His last potassium was 3.4 mEq/L.  The patient is asymptomatic except for knee pain. The nurse asks you whether this patient needs to have his potassium rechecked now, before surgery.  What do you do?

Discussion: Pre-op evaluation will never be the topic of a Hollywood thriller — you’ll never see Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt rubbing their temples worrying about whether they need to recheck the electrolytes.  But for you and me, it’s a question worth discussing. How important is it to diagnose hypokalemia in this asymptomatic patient on chronic diuretic therapy?  If the K=3.0 mEq/L, will you cancel the surgery?  What about if the K=2.9 mEq/L?  Experienced anesthesiologists know standards of care for their specialty, and also develop a gut impression about which patients are prepared for surgery, and which ones are not.  Do you sense this patient is at risk for sudden death or a cardiac arrhythmia?  Let’s examine this question.

First off, why didn’t you see this patient in your pre-op clinic?  The answer is because you won’t find the Stanford model of a well-staffed Pre-Anesthesia Clinic in the private practice community.  The Pre-Anesthesia Clinic is important at Stanford because many patients suffer from significant medical comorbidities, and because of the invasive nature of many of the inpatient surgeries.  In a community practice with healthier patients and less invasive procedures, there is neither the money nor the need to physically meet and examine every patient several days prior to surgery.  Adam Smith’s economic dictum of the invisible hand pertains to clinical medicine as well — anesthesiologists are paid to give anesthetics.  Neither insurers nor Medicare will reimburse you for routine pre-operative clinic encounters with patients.

In 2002, the American Society of Anesthesia published Practice Advisory for Preanesthesia Evaluation:  A Report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Preanesthesia Evaluation. This publication is available on the ASA website at Their recommendations for the timing of preanesthesia evaluation differ, depending on the severity of disease and also on the surgical invasiveness.  Our patient’s surgery involves a non-severe comorbidity (well-controlled hypertension) and a non-invasive surgery (knee arthroscopy).  For patients such as this, the ASA Practice Advisory states, “preoperative assessment may be done on or before the day of surgery. “ In our community outpatient practice in Palo Alto, a surgery-center RN calls the patient two days prior to surgery to ask pertinent questions.  This telephone call helps avoid day-of-surgery surprises (e.g. patients still on aspirin, patients with undiagnosed chest pain or dyspnea).  The physical evaluation by the anesthesia attending occurs on the day of surgery.

Outpatient surgery centers rarely have the ability to do lab tests other than blood glucose measurements or a 12-lead ECG.  Tests such as the measurement of electrolyte concentrations need to be done at an outside lab, at least one day prior to surgery.  Regarding preanesthesia serum chemistries (i.e., potassium, glucose, sodium, renal and liver function studies), the ASA Practice Advisory gives no specific recommendation to check preoperative electrolytes during chronic diuretic therapy.  The recommendation on checking pre-op electrolytes states  “Clinical characteristics to consider before ordering such tests include likely perioperative therapies, endocrine disorders, risk of renal and liver dysfunction, and use of certain medications or alternative therapies.”

Might “perioperative therapies” include potassium replacement? Consider this: potassium is predominantly an intracellular ion.  Per Miller’s Anesthesia, “Only 2% of total-body potassium is stored in plasma. . . .  a 20% to 25% change in potassium levels in plasma could represent a change in total-body potassium of 1000 mEq or more if the change were chronic or as little as 10 to 20 mEq if the change were acute. . . . Chronic changes are relatively well tolerated because of the equilibration of serum and intracellular stores that takes place over time to return the resting membrane potential of excitable cells to nearly normal levels.” (Miller’s Anesthesia, 2005, pp.1105-6)

The same textbook states, “Retrospective epidemiologic studies attribute significant risk to the administration of potassium (even chronic oral administration).  In one study, 1910 of 16,048 consecutive hospitalized patients were given oral potassium supplements.  Of these 1910 patients, hyperkalemia contributed to death in 7, and the incidence of complications of potassium therapy was 1 in 250.” (Miller’s Anesthesia, 2005, p. 1107).

Given this information, what should we do?

Here’s the answer: Per Miller’s Anesthesia, p. 1107, “As a rule, all patients undergoing elective surgery should have normal serum potassium levels.  However, we do not recommend delaying surgery if the serum potassium level is above 2.8 mEq/L or below 5.9 mEq/L, if the cause of the potassium imbalance is known, and if the patient is in otherwise optimal condition.”

The same textbook points out an additional problem in ordering lab tests: “the failure to pursue an abnormality appropriately poses a greater risk of medicolegal liability than does failure to detect that abnormality. In this way, extra testing increases the medicolegal risk to physicians.” (Miller’s Anesthesia, 2005, p. 945)

Regarding the timing of lab testing, the ASA Practice Advisory on Preanesthesia Evaluation states “test results obtained from the medical record within 6 months of surgery are generally acceptable if the patient’s medical history has not changed substantially. More recent test results may be desirable when the medical history has changed, or when test results may play a role in the selection of a specific anesthetic technique (e.g., regional anesthesia in the setting of anticoagulation therapy.)”

For all the reasons stated above, you tell the RN that you won’t recheck the potassium lab value for this patient, and you won’t delay or cancel the ACL surgery.  The surgery is completed two days later, without complication.  Your two clients, the patient and the surgeon, are both happy, and you’ve practiced sound, evidence-based medicine.


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:




  1. I just had back surgery two days Ago that was scheduled as an outpatient surgery. I told the physician I had seriously low potassium and I took 80meq daily to maintain an average 3.4. Despite this, I was not told to take potassium on the day of surgery. I presented for surgery with a 2.6 – I was told an IV drip of three bags over 4 hours would bring the K level up. They nearly burned my arm dripping too fast- I went to surgery with a 2.8 level. I woke up in a recovery room with a dreadful nurse telling me I now had to spend the night at the hospital because my potassium was low. It was low to start with- the surgery should have been rescheduled. Is it ethical to make me and my insurance company pay for an unnecessary overnight stay? I was kept tethered to a bed by an anti- blood lotto g device on my legs that the nurse refused to remove, I was given IV antibiotics and steroids that I would not have been sent home with and I was given Norco as a pain reliever and told I could have nothing else because my surgery did warrant any other pain reliever- I explained Vicodin related drugs gave me insomnia, steroids made my diabetic blood sugars high- I was at 263 but the nurses told me I was wrong about the steroids and it was surgical trauma that was making my blood sugar go up… I spent a horrible night tethered to a damn bed unable to sleep with severe stomachs pain – none of this a result of my surgery and all of it a result of my potassium deficiency- so is it ethical for me and my insurance company to pay for this extra nightmare?


    1. Yours is a complex history, and I don’t have access to your medical records, so I can’t comment on the appropriateness of your care. Potassium levels as low as yours are uncommon, and do present a risk for general anesthesia.
      It would not be standard care to give an anesthetic for an elective surgery to a patient with a potassium level as low as 2.6.


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