Law & Medicine

When Diet Is an Emergency

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At age 35, a woman underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery. About 1 month later, she began vomiting and became unable to keep down any food or liquids. She was admitted to the hospital.

Two days after her admission, a dietitian evaluated the patient and recommended that she receive total parenteral nutrition (TPN). However, the attending physician did not order TPN during the patient’s 12-day hospital stay. As a result, the patient experienced vitamin deficiencies, including low thiamine. The patient developed symptoms of neurologic complications but was discharged.

Within 1 week, she was readmitted with the same symptoms, as well as signs of delirium and reduced level of consciousness. Her mental state continued to decline, and she became comatose for a period of time.

The patient now has Wernicke encephalopathy, which she alleged was caused by a lack of thiamine. She has no short-term memory, is wheelchair bound, and lives in a nursing home.


The jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding her $14,285,505.86 in damages, including $133,202 for loss of past earning capacity, $888,429 for loss of earning capacity, and $13,263,874.86 for medical care expenses.


It is foolish to think of diet as ancillary to medicine. While we often consider the long-term health implications of diet—obesity, atherosclerosis—we may overlook the urgent and emergent conditions that can result from a patient’s diet.

A familiar example is hypoglycemia. We associate it with agents used to treat diabetes. But it also can occur in the context of renal failure, tumor, severe infection, alcohol, or starvation. Similarly, thiamine deficiency would be an obvious consideration in a patient who presented in a coma or with altered mental status. But, as this case shows, thiamine deficiency can sneak up on you.

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