An otherwise healthy 50-year-old female patient takes three herb pills daily: gingko, kava, and ginseng. What do you do when this patient needs elective surgery for an ACL reconstruction two days from now? Do you cancel surgery and stop the herbs, or should you proceed?

My goal is to give you practical advice on how to proceed in the real world of anesthesia and surgical practice. We all know herbal medicines are out there. Do they matter? What is the evidence that herbal medicines affect surgical outcomes in an adverse way?

Many commonly used herbal medicines have side effects that affect drug metabolism, bleeding, and the central nervous system. In 2002 35% of Americans used complementary alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, and visits to CAM practitioners exceeded those to American primary care physicians (Tindle et al: Trends in use of complementary and alternative medicine by US adults: 1997-2002. Altern Ther Health Med 2005; 11:42). CAM practitioners include homeopathic medicine, meditation, art, music, or dance therapy, herbal medicines, dietary supplements, chiropractic manipulation, osteopathic medicine, massage, and acupuncture.

The finest review of herbal medicines and anesthesia is Chapter 33 in Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th Edition, 2009, authored by Ang-Lee, Yuan, and Moss. The authors write, “Many patients fail to volunteer information regarding herb and alternative medicine pills unless they are specifically asked about herbal medication use. Scientific knowledge in this area is still incomplete. There are no randomized, controlled trials that have evaluated the effects of prior herbal medicine use on the period immediately before, during and after surgery.” They go on to say, “preoperative use of herbal medicines has been associated with adverse perioperative events,” and “Because herbal medicines are classified as dietary supplements, they are not subject to preclinical animal studies, premarketing controlled clinical trials, or postmarketing surveillance. Under current law, the burden is shifted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prove products unsafe before they can be withdrawn from the market.”

The authors reviewed nine herbal medicines that have the greatest impact on perioperative patient care: echinacea, ephedra, garlic, Ginkgo biloba, ginseng, kava, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian. These nine pills represent 50% of the herbal medicines sold in the United States.

The same authors published a paper entitled “Herbal Medicines and Perioperative Care.” (JAMA 2001; 286:208). The following table is reproduced from that journal article, and describes relevant effects, perioperative concerns, and recommendations for eight of the most common herbal medicines:

Boosts immunity. Allergic reactions, impairs immune suppressive drugs, can cause 
immune suppression when taken long-term, could impair wound 
healing. Discontinue as far in advance as possible, especially for transplant patients or those with liver dysfunction.

Ephedra (ma huang) Increases heart rate, increases blood pressure. Risk of heart attack, arrhythmias, stroke, interaction with other drugs, kidney stones. Discontinue at least 24 hours before surgery.

Garlic (ajo)
Prevents clotting. Risk of bleeding, especially when combined with other drugs that inhibit clotting. Discontinue at least 7 days before surgery.

Ginko (duck foot, maidenhair, silver apricot). Prevents clotting. Risk of bleeding, especially when combined with other drugs that inhibit clotting. Discontinue at least 36 hours before surgery.

Lowers blood glucose, inhibits clotting. Lowers blood-sugar levels. Increases risk of bleeding. Interferes with warfarin (an anti-clotting drug). Discontinue at least seven days before surgery.

Kava (kawa, awa, intoxicating pepper). Sedates, decreases anxiety. May increase sedative effects of anesthesia. Risks of addiction, tolerance and withdrawal unknown. Discontinue at least 24 hours before surgery.

St. John’s wort (amber, goatweed, Hypericum, klamatheweed). Inhibits re-uptake of neuro-transmitters (similar to Prozac). Alters metabolisms of other drugs such as cyclosporin (for transplant patients), warfarin, steroids, protease inhibitors (vs HIV). May interfere with many other drug.s Discontinue at least five days before surgery.

Sedates Could increase effects of sedatives. Long-term use could increase the amount of anesthesia needed. Withdrawal symptoms resemble Valium addiction If possible, taper dose weeks before surgery. If not, continue use until surgery. Treat withdrawal symptoms with benzodiazepines.

In their chapter in Miller’s Anesthesia, Ang-Lee, Yuan, and Moss recommend that, “In general, herbal medicines should be discontinued preoperatively. When pharmacokinetic data for the active constituents in an herbal medication are available, the timeframe for preoperative discontinuation can be tailored. For other herbal medicines, 2 weeks is recommended. However, in clinical practice because many patients require nonelective surgery, are not evaluated until the day of surgery, or are noncompliant with instructions to discontinue herbal medications preoperatively, they may take herbal medicines until the day of surgery. In this situation, anesthesia can usually proceed safely at the discretion of the anesthesiologist, who should be familiar with commonly used herbal medicines to avoid or recognize and treat complications that may arise.”

The American Society of Anesthesiologists have no official standards or guidelines on the preoperative use of herbal medications. Public and professional educational information released by the American Society of Anesthesiologists suggest that herbals be discontinued at least 2 to 3 weeks before surgery.

To return to our original question, what do you do when your otherwise healthy 50-year-old female patient has been taking gingko, kava, and ginseng up to two days prior to her ACL reconstruction surgery? Gingko can cause increased bleeding, kava can cause increased sedation, and ginseng can cause decreased blood sugars and increased bleeding. You discuss the predicament with the patient’s surgeon. He’s not concerned that a possible increased risk of bleeding will affect this knee surgery. You decide the increased level of sedation and the possible decreased blood sugar risks are not prohibitive. (If you were worried, you could cut back slightly on the amount of central nervous system depressant drugs you utilize, and also run a 5% dextrose solution in the patient’s IV.)

An alternative choice would be to cancel the surgery for 2 weeks while the patient remains herb-free. The surgeon asks you, “Is there any data that postponing the surgery for two weeks will decrease the complication rate?”

You answer honestly and say, “There is no data. The American Society of Anesthesiologists suggests that herbals be discontinued at least 2 to 3 weeks before surgery.”

The surgeon says, “I want to do the case tomorrow. There’s no data compelling me to delay for two weeks. I accept whatever increased bleeding risk there may be. I’ve never had a patient have a bleeding complication from a knee surgery.”

You proceed with the surgery the next day. The patient does well, and has no complications.

Surveys estimate that:
a) 22% to 32% of patients undergoing surgery use herbal medications (Tsen LC, et al: Alternative medicine use in presurgical patients. Anesthesiology 2000; 93:148);
b) 90% of anesthesiologists do not routinely ask about herbal medicine use (McKenzie AG: Current management of patients taking herbal medicines: A survey of anaesthetic practice in the UK. Eur J Anaesthesiol 2005; 22:597); and
c) more than 70% of patients are not forthcoming about their herbal medicine use during routine preoperative assessment (Kaye AD, et al: Herbal medications: Current trends in anesthesiology practice—a hospital survey. J Clin Anesth 2000; 12:468).

The frequent use of herbal medicines in perioperative patients is real. How big a problem is it? Nobody knows. How frequently does one of your patients have an unexpected problem of increased bleeding, increased sedation, decreased blood sugar, unexpected cardiac arrhythmia or angina, or decreased immune function?

For an ACL reconstruction in a healthy patient, gingko, kava, and ginseng may pose little risk. For a craniotomy on a 70-year-old with coronary artery disease and diabetes, gingko, kava, and ginseng bay pose an increased risk, and warrant postponing the surgery for 2 weeks after holding the herbal medicines.

My advice is to take a careful history of herb medicine use from your patients, know (or look it up if you don’t remember) the potential side effects of each herbal medicine, and then on a case-by-case basis decide if it really matters if the surgery should be cancelled for 2 weeks.

That’s what doctors do. That’s what anesthesia consultants do.

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.

TwinCities.com PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press mgrossman@pioneerpress.com, 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 novak.com by clicking on the picture below:



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