Erik Nelson was evaluated by Dr. Brennan Dodson, owner of Bridger Ear, Nose and Throat, for obstructive sleep apnea and a persistent nasal obstruction. Nelson had been diagnosed following a polysomnogram, which is a sleep study that is used to evaluate an individual's breathing patterns while sleeping. After the initial consultation, Dodson suggested that he undergo multiple level airway surgery.
Weeks later, the surgical procedure was performed, pain medication was prescribed, and Dodson did not see Nelson again after that. The following day, Nelson was found dead at his home. Daniel and Judy Nelson filed a medical negligence claim in a district court in Gallatin County alleging that the surgeon failed to review their son's medical records or properly tend to his postoperative recovery. Dodson, an otolaryngologist, did not review the results of the polysomnogram, nor had he conducted any results of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine data usage.
Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous sleeping disorder that causes an individual to abruptly stop breathing during sleep. Those with the disorder often have their sleep disturbed up to hundreds of times per night, meaning the brain and body may be temporarily deprived of oxygen. There are two general varieties of the condition:
Obstructive sleep apnea: Most commonly found and is caused by an obstruction (blockage) of the breathing airway, usually from the tissue in the rear of the throat collapsing when the body is at rest.
Central sleep apnea: Does not stem from an obstruction of the airway; however, the brain does not signal to the proper muscles for consistent breathing because of unstable respiratory control.
The day after the surgical procedure, Nelson had been released and issued a prescription for Oxycodone, a pain reliever that can depress respiratory function. Nelson took the medication and the next morning was found in an unconscious state and transferred to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and was pronounced dead. The report indicated that respiratory failure and postoperative swelling had caused his death.
The suit contends that Dodson did not adhere to the standards of medical care in treating the patient. Dodson strongly defends himself against any accusation that he demonstrated negligence and does not agree with the claim of medical malpractice, which seeks a jury trial.
Oxycodone, the pain medication that Nelson took, is a type of opioid substance that is derived from the opium poppy, or synthetic versions of it. Other commonly used (and abused) opioids include morphine and heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these drugs were responsible for 64,000 fatalities in the U.S. in 2016.
High dosages of the drugs can lead to respiratory depression, making them a leading reason for fatal drug overdoses. When taken with alcohol or other sedatives, the potential for overdose is heightened. It appears that based on Nelson's existing health conditions, the addition of the medication could have been a lethal combination.