Teen dies after 'routine' wisdom tooth surgery

When 17-year-old Jenny Olenick went in to have her wisdom teeth removed, her parents weren’t worried. After all, wisdom tooth extraction is so common these days that it’s almost become a rite of passage for teens. 

“She was supposed to be out of there in an hour and a half,” Jenny’s mom, Cathy Garger, told TODAY. “Just something we all do, going to the dentist. She was supposed to resume normal functioning within about four days or so.”

But the routine procedure quickly took a tragic turn. Just 15 minutes after Garger and her husband dropped Jenny off at the clinic  they received an urgent call from the oral surgeon’s office.

“We heard the ambulance sirens going in the background,” Garger remembers. “And as my husband and I were riding up the elevator we said, ‘That’s for Jenny.’ We just knew it.”

Though Garger and her husband were worried, they still had no idea of how badly things had gone wrong during the “routine” procedure on March 28, 2011. When they got to the hospital, doctors told them  the outlook was bleak. Their daughter died 10 days later.

The autopsy report revealed that the apparently healthy teen had died of “hypoxia while under anesthesia for a tooth extraction.” In other words, she’d been deprived of oxygen for so long that her brain was severely damaged. Sometimes when patients are under anesthesia their heart rate can slow, and then the body gets less and less oxygen if doctors can’t get their heart back up to speed.  Jenny’s death was ruled to be an accident. 

Jenny’s was the second reported hypoxia-related dental procedure death last year. Earlier in the year, 13-year-old Marissa Kingery died after an oral surgery went wrong. Her death was also ruled an accident.  

Jenny Olenick’s oral surgeon, Dominick Coletti, did not comment to TODAY; in an interview with the Baltimore Sun shortly after Jenny’s death he said he was “deeply saddened,” but maintained that “the team of medical professionals that were involved in her case worked hard to provide her with the best medical care.”

Garger and her husband weren’t satisfied with that response and have sued both Coletti and his anesthesiologist, Dr. Krista Michelle Isaacs. Both maintain their medical licenses.

According to the American Association for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons cases like Olenick’s and Kingery’s are rare, albeit tragic. In fact, the association’s records show that the risk of death or brain injury in patients undergoing anesthesia during oral surgery is 1 out of 365,000. While maintaining that safety standards are stringent, the organization still encourages patients to ask their dentists the tough questions.

That makes sense to Dr. Lee Fleisher, the Robert D. Dripps professor and chair of the department of anesthesiology and critical care at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Though these kinds of tragic outcomes are rare in healthy patients, there are some important questions to ask your doctor or dentist before undergoing anesthesia, Fleisher said.

First, you want to make sure that there will be someone other than the surgeon monitoring your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, Fleisher said.

“It’s also appropriate to ask what kind of monitoring equipment will be there and who will be doing the monitoring,” Fleisher said. “Do they have the proper equipment if someone stops breathing? Do they have a plan to deal with emergencies?”

For those with serious medical conditions it might make sense to talk to your internist before scheduling a dental procedure that will require anesthesia, Fleisher said.

Garger hopes that by telling Jenny’s story other parents will realize there’s nothing routine about surgery and that parents will start asking the right questions.

“You can never think that a routine procedure is just merely routine,” Garger said. “Anything can go wrong.”

Thumbing through Jenny’s yearbook, Garger said, “She just brought amazing joy into our lives. It’s very tragic that it had to end so needlessly.”

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