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Postoperative delirium in a 64-year-old woman

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A 64-year-old woman undergoes elective T10-S1 nerve decompression with fusion for chronic idiopathic scoliosis. Soon afterward, she develops acute urinary retention attributed to an Escherichia coli urinary tract infection and narcotic medications. She is treated with antibiotics, an indwelling catheter is inserted, and her symptoms resolve. She is transferred to the inpatient physical rehabilitation unit.

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On postoperative day 9, she develops an acute change in mental status, suddenly becoming extremely anxious and falsely believing she has a “terminal illness.” A psychiatrist suggests that these symptoms are a manifestation of delirium, given the patient’s recent surgery and exposure to benzodiazepine and narcotic medications. On postoperative day 10, she is awake but is now mute and uncooperative. An internist is consulted for an evaluation for encephalopathy and delirium.


Her medical history, obtained by chart review and interviewing her husband, includes well-controlled bipolar disorder over the last 4 years, with no episodes of frank psychosis or mania. She had a “bout of delirium” 4 years earlier attributed to a catastrophic life event, but the symptoms resolved after adjustment of her anxiolytic and mood-stabilizing drugs. She also has well-controlled hypertension, hypothyroidism, and gastroesophageal reflux. Her only surgery was her recent elective procedure.

She has a family history of dementia (Pick disease in her mother).

She is married, lives with her husband, and has an adult son. She is employed as a media specialist and also teaches English as a second language. Before this hospital admission, she was described as happy and content, though her primary psychiatrist had noted intermittent anxiety. Her husband does not suspect illicit drug use and denies significant alcohol or tobacco abuse.

A thorough review of systems is not possible, given her encephalopathy. But before her acute decline, she had complained of “choking on blood” and a subjective inability to swallow.

Her home medications include dextroamphetamine extended-release, alprazolam as needed for sleep, venlafaxine extended-release, lamotrigine, lisinopril, propranolol, amlodipine, atorvastatin, levothyroxine, omep­razole, iron, and vitamin B12. At the time of the evaluation, she is on her home medications with the addition of olanzapine, vitamin D, polyethylene glycol, and an intravenous infusion of dextrose 5% with 0.45% saline at a rate of 100 mL/hour. She has allergies to latex, penicillin, peanuts, and shellfish.


On physical examination, the patient seems healthy and appears normal for her stated age. She is wearing a spinal brace and is in no apparent distress. She is afebrile, pulse 104 beats per minute, respirations 16 breaths per minute and unlabored, and oxygen saturation good on room air. The skin is normal. No thyromegaly, bruits, or lymphadenopathy is noted. Cardiovascular, respiratory, and abdominal examinations, though limited by the spinal brace, are unremarkable. She has no evidence of peripheral edema or vascular insufficiency. Muscle bulk and tone are adequate and symmetric.

She is awake and alert and able to follow simple commands with some prompting. She does not initiate movements spontaneously. She makes some eye contact but does not track or acknowledge the interviewer consistently and does not respond verbally to questions. Her sclera are nonicteric, the pupils are equally round and reactive to light, and the external ocular muscles are intact. There is no facial asymmetry, and the tongue protrudes at midline. She blinks appropriately to threat bilaterally. Strength is at least 3/5 in the upper extremities and 2/5 in the lower extremities, though the examination is limited by lack of patient cooperation. She shows minimal grimace on noxious stimulation but does not withdraw extremities. Reflexes are present and mildly depressed symmetrically. Plantar reflexes are downgoing bilaterally.


On initial laboratory testing, the serum sodium is 132 mmol/L (reference range 136–144), stable since admission. Point-of-care glucose is 98 mg/dL. Aspartate aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase levels are mildly elevated at 59 U/L (13–35) and 51 U/L (7–38), respectively, but serum ammonia is undetectable. Vitamin B12, folate, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and free thyroxine are within the normal ranges. Leukocytosis is noted, with 14 × 109 cells/L (3.7–11.0), 86% neutrophils, and a mild left shift. Urinalysis is negative for leukocyte esterase, nitrites, and white blood cells.


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