Spotlight on Tonsil surgery (Children’s Hospital Oakand, Jahi McMath)

Happy Holidays! If you have listened to the news, you’ve no doubt heard about the sad story of a young gal in Oakland who died after tonsil surgery. The parents want to keep her alive on breathing and feeding tubes, even though doctors say there is no brain activity and she is clinically dead.

I don’t know what caused her death (I know some of you think I have all the answers), and I don’t want to speculate. It will all come out in the next year or so. This has “court case” and “lawsuit” written all over it, in my humble opinion.

At least this is a good time to go over the backgrounder of tonsils, tonsillitis, and tonsillectomy.

The tonsils are lymphoid tissue, part of the immune system that “filters” bacteria and viruses coming in by your mouth and nose. While they are not considered necessary, removing them will cause these pathogens to enter deeper in the body. Patients may get sick more often, and likely the other lymphoid organs, such as the Peyer’s Patches in the small intestine will get more of a workout.

Tonsil locations, source BruceBlaus via Wikipedia

Tonsil locations, source BruceBlaus via Wikipedia

There are actually 6 tonsils: palatine tonsils are what we think of more commonly in the back of the throat. Lingual tonsils are behind the tongue (facing the pharynx) and the pharyngeal tonsil is at the most superior end of the pharynx. We don’t talk about the 2 tubal tonsils, but you can look that up online.

Tonsils may get inflamed (remember the 5 signs of inflammation!) or enlarged due to a persistent or recurring infection – usually viral. The most common way to treat infected tonsils is by anti-inflammatory drugs, or antibiotics, if it is caused by bacteria. Surgery (tonsillectomy) may be required if they swell too big or keep swelling so that it obstructs breathing or swallowing. Surgical complications include uncontrolled post-operative bleeding, airway obstructions or anesthesia complications.

I understand in the Oakland case, media reports state the patient Jahi McMath had obstructive sleep apnea – meaning she had trouble breathing while she was asleep. And that was the indication for her surgery.

Online References:


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