One group of patients that benefits from Pentothal is people with cardiovascular problems, such as the elderly or those with heart disease. Expecting or delivering mothers also are normally given Pentothal because there's less chance that the anesthetic will cross through the placenta into the baby and reduce its blood pressure.
"Typically, Pentothal is used for instances in an emergency C-section, where you already have compromise of the baby," Benjamin said. "You don't want the baby to receive medication that would further compromise [it]."
There's also concern over using propofol in nursing mothers because the anesthetic has been shown to filter into the woman's breast milk, she added.
Pentothal also is preferable to other anesthetics for sedation during neurosurgery, because it does not affect intracranial pressure as drastically, Cohen said.
"It's an important drug for anesthesiologists to have as an option," Benjamin said. "If the drug has a valid therapeutic use, when it is taken off the market we all have to scramble to make sure the patients are taken care of."
Cohen said that without Pentothal, anesthesiologists and physicians likely will have to go ahead and use the newer anesthetics on at-risk patients, then monitor carefully to make sure the side effects don't have detrimental effects on their health.
"You can deal with it," he said, giving the example of a baby who has been exposed to propofol during C-section delivery. "You can ventilate the baby until it wears off. But it's not as easy as simply using Pentothal."
Cohen noted that Pentothal has been used for decades and currently causes just one anesthesia-related death in every 200,000 cases. Using the other sedation drugs would expose some patients to an unwarranted health risk.
"It's as safe as flying on a major airline," he said. "If you start making compromises on the anesthetic techniques you use, you would expect
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