Dr Manny's Notes

Deadly Complications of Rep. Murtha's Gallbladder Surgery

A day after Rep. John Murtha passed away following gallbladder surgery, it has emerged that the Congressman's large intestine was damaged during the procedure and the complications led him to be hospitalized, according to a Pennsylvania Congressman and longtime friend.

As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, gallbladder removal, or cholecystectomy, is considered "routine" surgery because of its prevalence and new, minimally invasive techniques that have helped to decrease risks and shorten recovery time. But the truth is, no matter how common the procedure, we should never consider surgery "routine."

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All surgeries carry risks from the general anesthesia used during the procedure, to the risk for infection afterwards - and sometimes, human error.

For the most part, the complications of gallbladder surgery are minimal. Many patients may complain of an upset stomach/diarrhea or pain at the surgical site, but dying from gallbladder surgery - although not common - can happen.

However, like anything else, there are multiple factors that can increase the risk of death after this surgery. Some of them include:

1. Underlying medical conditions, age and overall health

2. Partial obstruction vs. total obstruction: What was the severity of the blockage by gallstones?

3. Was the gallbladder infected before surgery, or has an infection formed since?

4. The skill of the surgeon doing the operation

If at some point during the surgery, an inadvertent perforation is created in the bowel and the defect is not recognized during the time of the procedure, intestinal bacteria can leak into the abdominal cavity creating a severe infection in the abdomen. Of all the complications from this surgery - this is probably the most severe because the bacteria can then be absorbed into the bloodstream, which can lead to septic shock and organ failure.

Of course, if the injury is recognized during the surgery, doctors can repair the defect in the intestine and institute a very aggressive antibiotic regimen, which can help the patient recover. But at the end of the day, when dealing with this type of complication, time is of the essence, and you really have very little room to prevent significant complications.

The Pennsylvania Democrat was admitted to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, on Jan. 31., when he developed an infection and fever, just days after having the procedure at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He died Monday afternoon.

Needless to say, a great American was lost, but one of the most important things we can learn from his tragic death is an awareness that all surgeries carry risk, and we should never take our health for granted.