Family of brain-damaged Edmonton girl suing dentist for $26.5M

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Amber Athwal’s family sues Edmonton dentist
WATCH ABOVE: The family of a little girl who suffered brain damage after being put under general anaesthetic at the dentist's has launched a $26-million lawsuit – Feb 21, 2017

UPDATE (March 1): A date for Dr. William Mather’s hearing has been set. The Alberta Dental Association and College said a hearing will take place before a tribunal Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. to determine if Mather is guilty of unprofessional conduct.

The family of a five-year-old Edmonton girl who suffered brain damage after she was given a general anesthetic for a dental procedure is suing the dentist and his staff.

“Amber’s injuries are very severe and affect every aspect of her life,” the little girl’s father, Raman Athwal, said. “She needs help with daily activities and she needs constant monitoring, 24/7, someone for her care… That’s why we think that it’s very important to file a lawsuit to protect her future.”

On Sept. 7, 2016 Amber Athwal was rushed to the Stollery Children’s Hospital after undergoing a dental procedure at the downtown office of Dr. William Mather.

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Athwal went from being a healthy, functional then-four-year-old to being unable to talk, walk or recognize her parents.

READ MORE: Amber Athwal case compels Alberta mother to speak out about son’s dental death: ‘I don’t want him forgotten’

The statement of claim is seeking $26.5 million in damages from Mather and eight members of his staff.

“It has impacted us in every aspect,” Raman said. “We stopped working since the day it happened and we are always with Amber now at her bedside. We are helping her in her recovery, doing cognitive things. There are other factors, like our daughter, our little one, Amber’s sister is also affected. She’s emotionally stressed.

“She’s always wondering why Amber is not getting up and playing with her,” he said.

“And then the financial need comes… On top of our daily needs, we need money for Amber, for her equipment and lots of other things.

“We want her to recover fully and whatever her needs are, we want to fulfil them,” Raman said. “Whatever her treatment needs are, we don’t want the money thing to hinder that process or stop that process.”

The lawsuit claims Amber suffered “profound neurological injuries” after being deprived of oxygen. The lawsuit claims while in recovery, a nurse noticed Amber was not breathing, she did not have a heart rate and her oxygen saturation level was zero.

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The lawsuit said a nurse noticed this about 20 minutes after the surgery ended and Amber was placed in recovery. The lawsuit claims about 15 minutes later, another person at the clinic called 911.

READ MORE: Dental sedation expert ‘frustrated beyond imagination’ over anesthesia rules

The statement of claim alleges no one in the office was making efforts to provide ventilation when EMS arrived five minutes later, when Amber was still unresponsive and not breathing. She was treated on scene and taken to the Stollery, where she was diagnosed with a hypoxic brain injury.

Amber Athwal and her little sister Anahat. March, 2016. Supplied to Global News

Her father Raman Athwal said, after a dental exam, they were told by Dr. Mather that Amber could have a procedure done that day.

The family said the specialist asked if Amber ate breakfast and when told yes, they allege he said it was OK and put her under with a general anesthetic.

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Amber spent just over a month in the Stollery before being transferred to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Amber Athwal celebrated her 5th birthday on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Courtesy, Raman Athwal

Last month, her father said at her fifth birthday, the little girl showed signs of some improvement: she was smiling, more responsive and could say a few words like “mama” and “papa.”

“She’s showing good recovery,” Raman said on Tuesday. “We see change in her everyday – in her body movement, in words she says – and we are very positive. Also, the doctors say that it’s showing good signs of recovery.”

READ MORE: Amber Athwal celebrates 5th birthday: ‘she was very happy’

In mid-November, Mather sent a letter to anesthesiologists seeking to hire one for his practice. In that letter, he said his patient was hooked up to blood pressure, heart rate, heart rhythm and oxygen monitors, and there was “nothing unusual or out of the ordinary in terms of the dental procedures that were performed.”

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Mather’s statement said when the nurse noticed Amber was in distress, “CPR was initiated and paramedics were called.”

READ MORE: Edmonton dentist breaks silence after little girl suffers brain damage

The lawsuit claims Dr. Mather and his staff failed to exercise reasonable care when treating Amber and did not do their due diligence before putting her under. It also claims they should have known Amber should not have undergone anaesthesia because she had eaten breakfast.

According to the Mayo Clinic, general anesthesia can cause aspiration, which is when stomach contents are expelled into the lungs. It happens because general anaesthesia relaxes the muscles in the digestive tract and airway, therefore patients are usually told to refrain from eating for at least eight hours before their scheduled procedure.

READ MORE: Alberta dental association suspends single operator model for deep sedation, anesthesia

The downtown Edmonton office of dentist Dr. William Mather. Kendra Slugoski, Global News

It’s not known if Amber’s brain damage was caused by aspiration or by another medical emergency, but her family was told back in November that the findings of an investigation into what happened will not be publicly released.

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The family learned in November that Dr. Mather will be sent before a tribunal to determine if he is guilty of unprofessional conduct. The Alberta Dental Association & College (ADA&C) set the hearing for Oct. 16 at 9 a.m.

“There are many elements that need to be coordinated, such as availability of both parties, the hearing tribunal, witnesses and experts,” ADA&C communications director Sarah Van Tassel said.

“Under the Health Professions Act a hearing date is to be set within 90 days of the decision to go to a hearing. As soon as we have this information we will make it available,” she added.

READ MORE: Alberta Dental Association and College responds to Amber Athwal investigation

None of the claims in the lawsuit have been proven in court. The lawsuit names Mather, his business, a nurse, and seven other people as defendants. Several of the defendants are not named in the lawsuit, which claims the plaintiffs were unable to obtain their full identities, despite repeated requests.

The lawsuit is seeking at least $26.5 million in damages for medical costs and loss of income for Amber and her family. The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 10 in Edmonton.

Mather has 20 days to file a statement of defence. On Tuesday, the Court of Queen’s Bench did not have a statement of defence on file.

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With files from Emily Mertz, Global News

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