HABERKORN & Associates

It really happens: surgical equipment left inside the body

Sometimes it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. A lot of stories, of course, are based on real life. It’s what makes a scary story so chilling.

Pretty much everyone has heard a horror story about surgeons leaving tools inside a patient. It seems so unreasonable that it makes a common joke in cartoons. It’s no laughing matter for hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans each year.

A recent case

NPR recently reported on a case from a Connecticut VA. An Army veteran had a prostatectomy in 2013. He experienced inconsistent and unidentifiable abdominal pains for four years following the surgery. During a medical checkup for an unrelated issue, magnetic testing located a scalpel left inside his body. Fortunately for the veteran, the scalpel has been removed and he’s recovering.

A sharp surgical scalpel is a worst-case scenario, and the veteran is lucky to have suffered neither infection nor death. While his exact situation is rare, data shows that there are between 1,500 and 6,000 instances of medical equipment left in surgery patients’ bodies each year. One study estimates the lower number, while a separate 2013 study was in the 4,000 to 6,000 range. 

Below the standard of care

Even on the lower end, 1,500 is a startling number for something that is easily preventable. There are quality assurance procedures in operating rooms to avoid these instances. Foreign objects only occur due to human error and medical malpractice.

The most common objects are medical sponges, which may not sound as gruesome as a scalpel, but may actually be more dangerous. Sponges absorb fluids and are prone to infection. Because foreign objects are unnatural, it often takes doctors time to identify the cause of pain or discomfort when such an atrocity happens. Time is of the essence in any medical situation. Infections can be deadly. Other objects left behind include clamps, screws and other surgical equipment.

When medical service doesn’t deliver its promise

While the numbers aren’t exact, the data makes it clear that there is a problem. There are more than 28 million operations in the US each year, performed with the intention of improving a patient’s health. A foreign object left behind is dangerous and it reflects a disturbing lack of professionalism. Anyone who has experienced such a situation should consult with an attorney immediately to discuss a potential medical malpractice claim.

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