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Steven J. Klearman
Steven J. Klearman
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Woman Dies in Dentist Chair

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Last week Georgette Watson, principal of Brentano Math and Science Academy in Chicago, died while undergoing a root canal in her dentist’s chair. It wasn’t the physical surgery that killed her, however. The blame is being placed upon her anesthesia, which put her in a state between unconsciousness and being awake, a state known as “twilight sedation.” In this condition patients are typically groggy though they can talk and are aware of their surroundings.

There are about 17 million root canals performed in the United States every year, but resulting deaths due to anesthesia are relatively rare. “I would think that she had to have some kind of underlying health problem,” said Dr. Christopher Wenckus, chief of the department of endodontics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Healthy people just don’t die from heart attacks.” Unfortunately, in this case her exact condition is unclear because the autopsy report came back inconclusive, pending further investigation by Illinois state medical examiners.

Watson, who lived in Skokie, was pronounced dead at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center Monday, a Cook County medical examiner’s office spokesman said. She went into cardiac arrest about 10:30 a.m. at the offices of Feldman & Feldman DDS, police said.

Watson had the same procedure in December 2006 on a different tooth with the same sedation with no adverse effects, according to the police.

Both dentists had their licenses placed on probation for 18 months starting in July after the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation alleged that a “crown and bridge treatment” performed by their office was substandard. They were also cited for poor record keeping. The two men did not admit guilt in their settlement.

About 30 minutes into the procedure in this case both dentists noticed that Watson’s breathing had become irregular and that her oxygen levels were low. They then attempted to reverse the anesthesia, but without success. They are also unsure as to what point she became completely unresponsive. Both dentists are properly licensed to sedate patients, according to Illinois state officials.

The American Association of Endodontists said Tuesday that root canal procedures are safe when administered by appropriately-trained dental professionals. “As with any medical or dental procedure, there is a certain amount of risk,” the Chicago-based group said, “so it is important to speak with your dental professional about any existing or previous health conditions, current medications and allergic reactions.”

Online you can refer to the state Department of Professional Regulations to check the professional standing of your dentist.

For more information on this subject, please refer to the section on Medical Malpractice and Negligent Care.