Justice Antonin Scalia’s death was unexpected. I’ve never examined Justice Scalia, never had access to his medical records, and have no information other than what has been published over the Internet regarding the events of the last 24 hours of his life. According to published news reports, APNewsBreak: Justice Scalia Suffered From Many Health Problems, the Justice suffered from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and hypertension.
As an experienced anesthesiologist, I’ve personally watched over 25,000 patients sleep during my career. Thousands of these patients carried the diagnosis of OSA. I’ve witnessed first hand what happens when a patient with OSA obstructs their airway and stops breathing during sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic condition of cyclic obstruction of the upper airway during sleep, usually combined with excessive daytime sleepiness and loud snoring.Apnea is the medical word for the suspension or stopping of breathing. Observation of at least five obstructive events (apneic events) per hour of sleep during a formal sleep study is a minimal criterion for diagnosing OSA in adults.
Let’s discuss a hypothetical male patient. He is 79 years old, overweight, and has a thick neck. Perhaps he is a Supreme Court Justice, and perhaps he is not. Because of his age and his body habitus, he’s at risk for the diagnosis of OSA, but we have no knowledge of any sleep study to document this.
We’re going to sedate this patient for a medical procedure. Intravenous sedative drugs will include some combination of a benzodiazepine such as Versed, a narcotic such as fentanyl, and a hypnotic such as propofol. The procedure does not require a breathing tube, so we’ll administer the sedation and be vigilant regarding what happens to the patient’s vital signs. As with all anesthetics, the patient will be fully monitored for heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and exhaled carbon dioxide level.
This is what happens when we administer strong sedatives to this hypothetical male patient who is 79 years old, overweight, and who has a thick neck:
- With the onset of sleep, the rate of breathing becomes slower and the volume of each breath decreases.
- Because of the decrease in ventilation, the oxygen saturation level will drop.
- As anesthesiologists, we administer oxygen via nasal cannula or via a mask, and the oxygen saturation will increase to a safe level again.
- If we progress to administering deeper sedation, the patient’s airway will obstruct. Typically this occurs because the base of the tongue drops back and occludes the airway, or redundant tissue in the oral pharynx relaxes and occludes the airway. With partial obstruction, we hear the patient snore, but ventilation continues. With total obstruction, the patient’s chest moves in an attempt to draw in a breath, but there is no ventilation through the obstructed upper airway.
- If this airway obstruction is not remedied, the oxygen saturation will drop below a safe level of 90%. At these low blood oxygen levels, the brain and heart will be deprived of necessary oxygen. A prolonged low blood oxygen level can lead to life threatening cardiac dysrhythmias or a cardiac arrest.
- With a physician anesthesiologist present, the airway obstruction is relieved by applying a jaw lift, extending the patient’s neck, inserting an oral airway, or inserting an airway tube.
- Without an anesthesiologist present, the patient could die.
In a related scenario, what if our hypothetical male patient who is 79 years old, overweight, and who has a thick neck doesn’t have medical sedation, but rather has a long busy day at 4,400 feet of altitude, and perhaps consumes alcohol with its attendant sedative effects, along with perhaps a sleeping pill or an oral narcotic analgesic taken to relieve the symptoms of a painful shoulder ailment? All of these factors (fatigue, altitude, alcohol, medications) serve to make a patient more sedated. Heavy sleep accompanied by snoring ensues. The partial airway obstruction of snoring progresses to the total airway obstruction of obstructive sleep apnea. The blood oxygen level drops, the heart is denied adequate oxygen delivery, and the patient suffers a cardiac arrhythmia and then a cardiac arrest.
Is this a “heart attack?”
Every one of us will die one day, and every one of our deaths will be accompanied by a heart that ceases to beat. The cause of the “heart attack” will differ for each of us. If someone has significant narrowing of a major coronary artery and attempts to run up a mountain, this event may increase the oxygen demand of the heart and precipitate a lethal heart rhythm. When a hypothetical male patient who is 79 years old, overweight, and who has a thick neck dies in the middle of the night, you can bet the cessation of the heart beat was due to airway obstruction and inadequate oxygen to the heart.
According to APNewsBreak, on the morning the Justice was found dead “a breathing apparatus was found on the night stand next to Scalia’s bed when his body was found, but he was not hooked up to it and it was not turned on.” Most likely this was a CPAP machine, or a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine. A CPAP machine includes a mask which the patient straps over their nose or over their nose and mouth prior to going to sleep. The CPAP machine delivers a stream of compressed air via a hose to the nose mask or the full-face mask, splinting the airway to keep it open under air pressure so unobstructed breathing becomes possible. The main problem with a CPAP machine is non-compliance, that is, the patient refuses to wear it. This was seemingly the case with Justice Scalia’s last night.
A take home message from this column is to respect the specter of OSA in your own life and in the lives of your loved ones. If you are a physician, respect the specter of OSA in your patients. Persons with an increased risk of OSA include people older than 60 years of age, patients with hypertension, prior strokes, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, obesity, or the metabolic syndrome including hyperlipidemia and diabetes. The most common symptoms are excessive daytime sleepiness and loud snoring. Persons who fit this profile should undergo a formal sleep study to screen for OSA. Most formal sleep studies require overnight monitoring of breathing patterns and oxygen saturation. The studies are not cheap, so screening every elderly obese snorer in America would be expensive. However, a diagnosis of OSA can lead to a cascade of effective therapies, including: 1) an oral orthodontic appliance to keep the jaw advanced, or 2) a continuous positive airway pressure machine to be worn while sleeping, or 3) airway surgeries on the palate, uvula, mandible, and/or maxilla, or 4) aggressive treatment of the OSA comorbidities of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that 25 million Americans may have OSA, and up to 90 percent of these patients are undiagnosed.
Questions will continue to swirl around the circumstances of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Was there a pillow over his head, as was first described by John Poindexter, the owner of the ranch who first discovered Scalia’s body? Were sedating medications or alcohol present in his bloodstream? Why did Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara pronounce Scalia dead of natural causes without even seeing the body? Why was no autopsy ordered? Was the Justice murdered, as if this was the plot of some John Grisham legal thriller?
We may never know the answers to these questions, but query most any anesthesiologist about the likelihood that OSA was involved in the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the answer you will get is . . .
“Yes, with a high degree of medical probability, obstructive sleep apnea is what killed Justice Antonin Scalia.”
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Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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