A ventilator, also known as a respirator or breathing machine, is a medical device that provides a patient with oxygen when they are unable to breathe on their own. There are also times when a ventilator is required after surgery, as the patient may not be able to breathe on their own immediately after the procedure.
The ventilator gently pushes air into the lungs and allows it to come back out like the lungs would typically do when they are able. During any surgery that requires general anesthesia, a ventilator is necessary.
General anesthesia works by paralyzing the muscles of the body temporarily. This includes the muscles that allow us to inhale and exhale. Without a ventilator, breathing during general anesthesia would not be possible. Most patients are on the ventilator while the surgery is taking place, then a drug is given to stop the anesthesia. Once the anesthesia stops, the patient is able to breathe on their own and they are removed from the ventilator.
In order to be placed on a ventilator, the patient must be intubated. This means having an endotracheal tube placed in the mouth or nose and threaded down into the airway. This tube has a small inflatable gasket which is inflated to hold the tube in place. The ventilator is attached to the tube and the ventilator provides “breaths” to the patient.
Sedation While on a Ventilator
If a patient is on the ventilator after surgery, medication is often given to sedate the patient. This is done because it can be upsetting and irritating to the patient to have an endotracheal tube in place and feel the ventilator pushing air into the lungs. The goal is to keep the patient calm and comfortable without sedating them so much that they cannot breathe on their own and be removed from the ventilator.
Weaning is the term used for the process of removing someone from the ventilator. Most surgery patients are removed from the ventilator quickly and easily. They may be provided a small amount of nasal oxygen to make the process easier, but they are typically able to breath without difficulty.