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Wife fights for statewide change after husband, prominent NC doctor dies during dental anesthesia overdose

Dr. Henry Patel was perfectly healthy before getting a dental implant in July of 2022. Henry Patel was a prominent doctor in Wilmington, and went to his dentist for a routine procedure.

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WILMINGTON, N.C. — Dr. Henry Patel was a healthy man before getting a dental implant in July of 2020, his wife said. He was a prominent doctor in Wilmington, and went to his dentist for a routine procedure.

Oral surgeon Mark Austin gave him anesthesia and sedated him for his procedure. But Austin gave him too much, according to an autopsy report reviewed by WECT News. Patel's wife believes the overdose of anesthesia killed him, according to Henry Patel's wife.

Austin has surrendered his license to practice sedation and has been under investigation by the state since 2021 for abusing controlled substances, according to reporting from WECT News.

Henry Patel's wife, Shital Patel, has been working for the past two years to bring awareness to what happened and prevent others from losing a loved one the same way.

It wasn't until her husband's tragic death that Shital Patel and many of Henry Patel's colleagues in the field of medicine realized that dentists operate under a different set of rules than medical doctors.

"The medical doctors aren't allowed to do two things at once, like do the surgery, and give anesthesia or monitor a patient at the same time," Shital Patel said. "And they're in a hospital setting, or a surgical setting, with plenty of other help around. But dentists, solo practitioners, are out there doing it all the time."

Doctors are required to have an anesthesiologist or registered nurse anesthetist present before operating, while dentists are allowed to sedate patients themselves before performing procedures.

Henry Patel is not the only healthy patient in recent years to die after being sedated by their dentist. Over the last six months, the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners has been considering stricter requirements for dental sedation amid pushback from dentists who said it would drive up costs.

Shital Patel knows change won't happen overnight, but wants something done before it's too late for another family.

"It is frustrating, but I want them to know, we're not going away," she said. "It may take a while, and I'm fine with that. But the more time that goes, people are being hospitalized or dying. So it's an easy decision."

"Why wouldn't you do something for the public good, if it's preventable?"

For more on this story, go to WECT News.