Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
Elijah McClain

Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old Black man who was detained by police just after 10:30 pm on August 24, 2019 while on his way home from picking up an iced tea for his brother. The Aurora, Colorado Police Department received a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a mask and waving his hands. 

An account of the events of that night appeared on the website     

Elijah McClain

The 23-year-old had made a quick trip to the convenience store to pick up an iced tea for his brother. His sister later told a local ABC affiliate  that McClain was wearing an open-face ski mask because he “had anemia and would sometimes get cold.” And although he was unarmed, simply walking home and, his sister said, listening to music, police say “a struggle ensued.” One officer accused McClain of reaching for his gun, and one put him in a carotid hold, which involves an officer applying pressure to the side of a person’s neck in order to temporarily cut off blood flow to the brain. “Due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state,” officers then called Aurora First Responders, who “administered life-saving measures,”  according to a local NBC affiliate. Paramedics injected McClain with what they said was a “therapeutic” amount of ketamine to sedate him, while officers held him down.

McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, and was taken off life support on August 30. His family said at the time that he was brain dead, and covered in bruises. . . .

Elijah McClain in ICU

Body-cam footage of the arrest does exist, although the Aurora Department of Police did not release it to the public until late November, months after McClain’s death. In the footage, an officer can be heard admitting McClain had done nothing illegal prior to his arrest; another accuses McClain of reaching for one of their guns. McClain, meanwhile, can be heard asking the officers to stop, explaining that they started to arrest him as he was “stopping [his] music to listen.” He gasps that he cannot breathe. He tells them his name, says he has ID but no gun, and pleads that his house is “right there.” He sobs, and vomits, and apologizes: “I wasn’t trying to do that,” he says. “I just can’t breathe correctly.” One of the officers can also be heard threatening to set his dog on McClain if he “keep[s] messing around,” and claiming he exhibited an extreme show of strength when officers tried to pin back his arms. . . .

An autopsy initially listed McClain’s cause of death as “undetermined.”

McClain’s autopsy also raised questions. The Adams County Coroner announced in early November that it wasn’t clear whether his death had been an accident, or carotid hold–related homicide, or the result of natural causes. The coroner listed McClain’s cause of death as “undetermined,” but points to hemorrhaging in his neck and abrasions on different parts of his body. Noting that “an idiosyncratic drug reaction (an unexpected reaction to a drug even at a therapeutic level) cannot be ruled out” in reference to the ketamine dosage, the report’s wording seemed to pin responsibility on McClain himself.”

A July 3, 2020 story by NBC news described the ketamine administration in this case as follows: 

The officers took McClain to the ground using a carotid control hold, a type of chokehold meant to restrict blood to the brain to render a person unconscious. . . .

McClain “briefly went unconscious,” according to a report the local district attorney, Dave Young, completed last fall. McClain could also be heard in the police video telling the officers, “I can’t breathe, please,” and he vomited while he was on the ground.

A medic told officers that “when the ambulance gets here, we’re going to go ahead and give him some ketamine.”

The officers responded, “Sounds good,” and they told the medic that McClain appeared to be “on” something and that he had “incredible strength.”

An Aurora Fire Rescue medic injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, according to the district attorney’s report.

The coroner found that McClain’s death was due to “undetermined causes,” . . . The medic at the scene estimated that McClain weighed 220 pounds, Young’s report said. But the coroner said he was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.

According to documents shared by Aurora Fire Rescue, the standard dose of ketamine is 5 milligrams per each kilogram of a person’s weight. That would mean that instead of 500 milligrams of ketamine, McClain should have received about 320 milligrams.

The use of ketamine by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) was reviewed in the paper Prehospital Use of IM Ketamine for Sedation of Violent and Agitated Patients in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine. Regarding the indications to use ketamine in the pre-hospital setting, the paper stated: “Violent and agitated patients pose a serious challenge for emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Rapid control of these patients is paramount to successful prehospital evaluation and also for the safety of both the patient and crew. Sedation is often required for these patients, but the ideal choice of medication is not clear.” In this retrospective review of prehospital ketamine use, 50 of the 52 patients studied were rapidly sedated, and only three patients had negative side effects. But these three side effects were significant, including the requirement for an endotracheal tube (ETT) in two patients, and the requirement for bag valve mask (BVM) ventilation in one patient. ETT or BVM are indicated when airway or breathing cease to be adequate. The publication included the following algorithm to guide the pre-hospital usage of ketamine:

What probably happened to cause Elijah McClain’s death? 

As an anesthesiologist I’ve administered ketamine safely to hundreds of patients. It’s a potent drug but poses life-threatening risks if given by personnel who are not airway experts. I have no access to the medical records or police records from Elijah McClain’s death. But based on reading the media coverage, here’s my interpretation regarding the administration of ketamine to Elijah McClain:

Ketamine is a potent injectable drug used by anesthesiologists to provide sedation or general anesthesia. (Reference: Elsevier Clinical Key Monograph, Lane Medical Library online, Stanford University Medical Center) It can be injected via an intravenous line, or injected into a muscle (intramuscularly, or IM) as it was to Elijah McClain. Ketamine produces an anesthetic state characterized by profound pain relief with minimal depression of breathing. Ketamine brings on a trancelike state of unconsciousness, but also produces undesirable psychological reactions during awakening which are called emergence reactions. Common symptoms of emergence reactions are vivid dreams, a sense of floating out of body, and illusions which seem to be misinterpretations of a real, external sensory experience. (Reference: Miller’s Anesthesia, 9th edition, Chapter 23, Intravenous Anesthetics)

For anesthesiologists the primary indication intramuscular/IM ketamine is to induce general anesthesia in uncooperative patients, young children, or adolescents who will not remain still and allow the elective placement of an intravenous/IV catheter. An intramuscular injection of ketamine into the deltoid muscle of the shoulder or the quadraceps muscle of the thigh will bring on the onset of anesthesia in 3 to 5 minutes. Per the chart below, the general anesthesia induction dose of ketamine is 4-6 mg/kg when used IM:

Uses and Doses of Ketamine

From Reves JG, Glass P, Lubarsky DA, et al. Intravenous anesthetics. In: Miller RD, Eriksson LI, Fleischer LA, et al, eds.  Miller’s Anesthesia,  7th ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone; 2010: 719–768.

Induction of general anesthesia  ∗ 0.5-2 mg/kg IV  
4-6 mg/kg IM
Maintenance of general anesthesia0.5-1 mg/kg IV with N  2  O 50% in O  2  
15-45 μg/kg/min IV with N  2  O 50%-70% in O  
30-90 μg/kg/min IV without N  2  O
Sedation and analgesia0.2-0.8 mg/kg IV over 2-3 min
2-4 mg/kg IM
Preemptive or preventive analgesia0.15-0.25 mg/kg IV

McClain’s demise may have been caused by the effects of ketamine, combined with inadequate management/resuscitation of a ketamine-anesthetized adult by non-anesthesia professionals:

  1. McClain was not NPO prior to his anesthetic. Nothing by mouth (nil per os, or NPO) is the standard of care prior to elective surgery. Vomiting stomach contents after the induction of general anesthesia can lead to aspiration of these stomach contents into the windpipe and/or lungs, which can cause death. Patients for elective surgery who receive ketamine always have an empty stomach. It’s dangerous for a paramedic to induce general anesthesia in an individual who is not NPO, because any vomiting could obstruct the airway and breathing. According to Elsevier Clinical Key Monograph, Lane Medical Library online, Stanford University Medical Center: “Vomiting has been reported following ketamine administration. Intact laryngeal-pharyngeal reflexes may offer some protection, however the possibility of aspiration must be considered.”
  2. Ketamine causes increased airway secretions, and the accumulation of these secretions on the vocal cords can cause laryngospasm (the clamping of the vocal cords together which blocks off all airflow). Ketamine causes increased production of saliva and increased secretions in the trachea and bronchial passages. Drugs called antisialagogues which block the production of these excess secretions are routinely given together with ketamine to prevent this complication. Atropine is the treatment most commonly used, with glycopyrrolate being an alternative drug. Laryngospasm is the most feared complication of intramuscular ketamine sedation, and laryngospasm is more common in the presence of increased secretions. Laryngospasm causes immediate cessation of all airflow through the voice box and will cause death within minutes if not treated. Medical treatment of laryngospasm in this setting would be pharmacologic paralysis of the vocal cords using a drug named succinylcholine, followed rapid sequence induction (RSI) of anesthesia and endotracheal tube (ETT) placement.    
  3. An overdose of ketamine can impair respirations, and Elijah McClain received an overdose of ketamine. He weighed 140 pounds (64 kilograms). He received a dose of 500 mg, or 7.8 mg/kilogram. This exceeded the general anesthetic dose of 4 – 6 mg/kg for intramuscular use. Respiratory depression and apnea can occur after rapid administration or high doses of ketamine. (Reference: Elsevier Clinical Key Monograph, Lane Medical Library online, Stanford University Medical Center) An overdose of ketamine, administered by a non-anesthesiology professional, could lead to loss of airway and death if McClain stopped breathing and was not properly resuscitated by either bag valve mask (BVM) ventilation or ETT placement.

The mnemonic Airway-Breathing-Circulation, or A-B-C, describes the order of acute medical care to an emergency patient, and the failure of Airway or Breathing likely caused McClain’s death by one or more of the three possibilities listed above.

It’s possible that the police officer’s choke hold/carotid hold contributed to or caused McClain’s death as well. If this police maneuver obstructed blood flow to one or both carotid arteries, McClain was at risk of becoming unconscious from lack of oxygen to his brain. If the police maneuver obstructed his trachea/windpipe, then McClain was at risk to lose his airway and be unable to breathe.  

Was there any indication for the paramedics, accompanied by police officers, to induce general anesthesia to Elijah McClain under the circumstances above? Based on what has been published regarding of the facts of the case, I don’t think so.

This case received a modest amount national publicity when it occurred. Now, in the context of the amplified Black Lives Matter movement, the case has become very relevant. A petition demanding “Justice for Elijah McClain” has garnered nearly two million signatures. 




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