A ventilator is also known as a breathing machine or a respirator, which is a medical device that helps patients breathe when they are not able to do it themselves. It gently pushes air into the lungs and lets air exit naturally, as if the patient was doing it themselves. Any time someone is undergoing surgery and heavily sedated, a ventilator is necessary. After surgery a ventilator may also be needed if the patient is not immediately able to breathe on their own after the procedure. Those are the two main circumstances when a ventilator may be necessary.
General anesthesia works by temporarily paralyzing the muscles in the body. Of course, this includes the muscles that make it possible to breathe. Without a ventilator breathing while under general anesthesia would be impossible. Ventilator breathing is facilitated via endotracheal intubation. Doctors will run an endotracheal tube through the mouth or into the nose of the patient and down the trachea. These procedures are specifically known as orotracheal or nasotracheal, respectively. Usually orotracheal is just called endotracheal because it is the more common method. The tube has a small inflatable bladder that is inflated to hold the tube in place, and prevent vomit or other secretions outside of the tube from entering the lungs. The tube is then attached to the ventilator and the machine breathes for the patient. Once the procedure is complete, the patient is given another drug that stops the anesthesia, and patients slowly come back around to a conscious level. Once anesthesia has fully stopped working the patient is once again able to breathe on their own.
Instances outside of a surgical procedure may require ventilators as well. Any case that a patient cannot breathe for themselves enough to provide adequate oxygen to the brain and body will require a ventilator. Cases of severe injury where the patient has surgery, but is placed in a medically-induced coma to help recovery, requires use of a ventilator. Poor lung function due to chronic obstructive lung disease, which is common in smokers, would likely make it necessary for a patient to remain on a ventilator after surgery.
Some patients are too ill to breathe for themselves and remain on ventilators until their condition proves they are able to breathe on their own. In case of extreme trauma or open-heart surgery patients will be on a ventilator before, during and after surgery. Patients that are on respirators for an extended period need a higher level of care. They cannot do anything for themselves and must be monitored around the clock to ensure they are breathing, fed, cleaned and cleared of secretions. Once the general anesthetic wears off, the medical staff will not awaken the patient. Rather, they let them awaken on their own, and wait until they can raise their head and answer simple commands before removing them from the breathing machine.
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See also …
American Thoracic Society