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.
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13-year-old Jahi McMath of Oakland, California suffered sudden bleeding from her nose and mouth and cardiac arrest following a December 9th 2013 tonsillectomy, a surgery intended to help treat her obstructive sleep apnea. After the bleeding she lapsed into a coma. Three days later she was declared brain-dead.


How could this happen?

Behind circumcision and ear tubes, tonsillectomy is the third most common surgical procedure performed on children in the United States. 530,000 tonsillectomies are performed children under the age of 15 each year. Tonsillectomy is not a minor procedure. It involves airway surgery, often in a small child, and often in a child with obstructive sleep apnea. The surgery involves a risk of bleeding into the airway. The published mortality associated with tonsillectomy ranges from 1:12,000 to 1:40,000. 

Between 1915 and the 1960’s, tonsillectomy was the most common surgery in the United States, done largely to treat chronic throat infections. After the 1970’s, the incidence of tonsillectomies dropped, as pediatricians realized the procedure had limited success in treating chronic throat infections. The number of tonsillectomies has increased again in the last thirty years, as a treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Currently 90 percent of tonsillectomies are performed to treat OSA. Only 1 – 4 % of children have OSA, but many of these children exhibit behavioral problems such as growth retardation, poor school performance, or daytime fatigue. The American Academy of Otolaryngology concluded that “a growing body of evidence indicates that tonsillectomy is an effective treatment for sleep apnea.”

Tonsillar and adenoid hypertrophy are the most common causes of sleep-disordered breathing in children. Obstructive sleep apnea is defined as a “disorder of breathing during sleep characterized by prolonged upper airway obstruction and/or intermittent complete obstruction that disrupts normal ventilation during sleep.” (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th edition, 2009, Chapter 82).

In OSA patients, enlarged tonsils can exacerbate loud snoring, decrease oxygen levels, and cause obstruction to breathing. Removal of the tonsils can improve the diameter of the breathing passageway. Specific diagnosis of OSA can be made with an overnight sleep study (polysomnography), but applying this test to large populations of children is a significant expense. Currently only about 10 percent of otolaryngologists request a sleep study in children with sleep-disordered breathing prior to surgery (Laryngoscope 2006;116(6):956-958). In our surgical practice in Northern California, most pediatricians and otolaryngologists forego the preoperative overnight sleep study if the patient has symptoms of obstructed sleep, confirmed by a physical exam that reveals markedly enlarged tonsils.

Every tonsillectomy requires general anesthesia, and anesthesiologists become experts in the care of tonsillectomy patients. Prior to surgery the anesthesiologist will review the chart, interview the parent(s), and examine the child’s airway. Most children under the age of 10 will be anesthetized by breathing sevoflurane via an anesthesia mask, which is held by the anesthesiologist. Following the child’s loss of consciousness, the anesthesiologist will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the child’s arm. The anesthesiologist then inserts a breathing tube into the child’s windpipe, and turns the operating table 90 degrees away so the surgeon has access to operate on the throat. The surgeon will move the breathing tube to the left and right sides of the mouth while he or she removes the right and left tonsils. (note: children older than the age of 10 will usually accept an awake placement of an IV by the anesthesiologist, and anesthetic induction is accomplished by the IV injection of sleep drugs including midazolam and propofol, rather than by breathing sevoflurane via an anesthesia mask).

The child remains asleep until the tonsils are removed, and all bleeding from the surgical site is controlled. The anesthesiologist then discontinues general anesthetic drugs and removes the breathing tube when the child awakens. Care is taken to assure that the airway is open and that breathing is adequate. Oxygen is administered until the child is alert. Tonsillectomy is painful, and intravenous opioid drugs such as fentanyl or morphine are commonly administered to relieve pain. The opioids depress respiration, and monitoring of oxygen levels and breathing is routinely done until the child leaves the surgical facility.

Most tonsillectomy patients have surgery as an outpatient and are discharged home within hours after surgery. Prior to the 1960’s patients were hospitalized overnight routinely post-tonsillectomy. In 1968 a case series of 40,000 outpatient tonsillectomies with no deaths was reported, and performance of tonsillectomy on an outpatient basis became routine after that time. (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th edition, 2009, Chapter 33).

Published risk factors for postoperative complications after tonsillectomy include: (1) age younger than 3 years; (2) evidence of OSA; (3) other systemic disorders of the heart and lungs); (4) presence of airway abnormalities; (5) bleeding abnormities; and (6) living a long distance from an adequate health care facility, adverse weather conditions, or home conditions not consistent with close observation, cooperativeness, and ability to return quickly to the hospital. (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th edition, 2009, Chapter 82).

The incidence of post-tonsillectomy bleeding increases with age. In a national audit of more than 33,000 tonsillectomies, hemorrhage rates were 1.9% in children younger than 5 years old, 3% in children 5 to 15 years old, and 4.9% in individuals older than 16. The return to the operating room rate was 0.8% in children younger than 5 years old, 0.8% in children 5 to 15 years old, and 1.2% in individuals older than 16. (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th edition, 2009, Chapter 75).

Primary bleeds usually occur within 6 hours of surgery. Hemorrhage is usually from a venous or capillary bleed, rather than from an artery. Complications occur because of hypovolemia (massive blood loss), the risk of blood aspiration into the lungs, or difficulty with replacing the breathing tube should emergency resuscitation be necessary. Early blood loss can be difficult to diagnose, as the blood is swallowed and not seen. Signs suggesting hemorrhage are an unexplained increasing heart rate, excessive swallowing, pale skin color, restlessness, sweating, and swelling of the airway causing obstruction. Low blood pressure is a late feature. (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th edition, 2009, Chapter 75).

What happened to 13-year-old Jahi McMath in Oakland following her tonsillectomy? We have no access to her medical records, and all we know is what was reported to the press. The following text was published in the 12/21/2013 Huffington Post:

After her daughter underwent a supposedly routine tonsillectomy and was moved to a recovery room, Nailah Winkfield began to fear something was going horribly wrong.

Jahi was sitting up in bed, her hospital gown bloody, and holding a pink cup full of blood.

“Is this normal?” Winkfield repeatedly asked nurses.

With her family and hospital staff trying to help and comfort her, Jahi kept bleeding profusely for the next few hours then went into cardiac arrest, her mother said.

Despite the family’s description of the surgery as routine, the hospital said in a memorandum presented to the court Friday that the procedure was a “complicated” one.

“Ms. McMath is dead and cannot be brought back to life,” the hospital said in the memo, adding: “Children’s is under no legal obligation to provide medical or other intervention for a deceased person.”

In an interview at Children’s Hospital Oakland on Thursday night, Winkfield described the nightmarish turn of events after her daughter underwent tonsil removal surgery to help with her sleep apnea.

She said that even before the surgery, her daughter had expressed fears that she wouldn’t wake up after the operation. To everyone’s relief, she appeared alert, was talking and even ate a Popsicle afterward.

But about a half-hour later, shortly after the girl was taken to the intensive care unit, she began bleeding from her mouth and nose despite efforts by hospital staff and her family.

While the bleeding continued, Jahi wrote her mother notes. In one, the girl asked to have her nose wiped because she felt it running. Her mother said she didn’t want to scare her daughter by saying it was blood.

Family members said there were containers of Jahi’s blood in the room, and hospital staff members were providing transfusions to counteract the blood loss.

“I don’t know what a tonsillectomy is supposed to look like after you have it, but that blood was un-normal for anything,” Winkfield said.

The family said hospital officials told them in a meeting Thursday that they want to take the girl off life support quickly.

“I just looked at the doctor to his face and I told him you better not touch her,” Winkfield recalled.

Despite the family’s description of the surgery as routine, the hospital said in a memorandum presented to the court Friday that the procedure was a “complicated” one.


Despite the precaution of hospitalizing Jahi McMath post-tonsillectomy, when her bleeding developed it seems the management of her Airway-Breathing-Circulation did not go well. I’ve attended to bleeding post-tonsillectomy patients, and it can be a harrowing experience. It can be an extreme challenge to see through the blood, past the swollen throat tissues post-surgery, and locate the opening to the windpipe so that one can insert the breathing tube needed to supply oxygen to the lungs. Assistance from a second anesthesiologist is often needed. The surgeon will be unable to treat or control severe bleeding until an airway tube is in place.  Difficult intubation and airway management can lead to decreased oxygen levels and ventilation, jeopardizing oxygen delivery to the brain and heart. If severe bleeding is unchecked and transfusion of blood cannot be applied swiftly, the resulting low blood pressure and shock can contribute to the lack of oxygen to a patient’s brain.

A bleeding tonsillectomy patient can be an anesthesiologist’s nightmare.


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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.

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:


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