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An unwanted souvenir

It almost sounds like a joke, but if it happened to you or me, we would probably be moaning, not laughing.

Last week a Maryland woman filed a malpractice suit after discovering that a twelve-inch-long surgical instrument had been left inside her while undergoing a hysterectomy this past December. For seven weeks following the operation the woman complained of pain in her pelvic area. Before the mistake was discovered, one doctor suggested that she was merely having a panic attack.

Sound outrageous? The truly outrageous part of this story is that it’s all too common. I recently came across a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that contained this shocking estimate: Surgery tools are left in 1,500 patients each year. In other words, in the years since the first Super Bowl in 1967, you could fill a football stadium with the number of Americans who were wheeled out of an operating room with a sponge, a clamp, or an electrode tucked away inside them.

Even more shocking is that because hospitals are not required to report such mistakes, the actual number of patients who take away complementary surgical equipment might be quite a bit higher. The mistakes reported in this study all involved malpractice cases.

Not surprisingly, surgical procedures in emergency situations were found to be nine times more likely to lead to these mishaps. Other factors that might cause equipment to end up on the inside of a patient included operations that required unplanned changes in procedures, and patients with higher body-mass index.

Some medical experts defend this sort of mix up, pointing out that more than 28 million surgeries are performed in the U.S. each year. But that doesn’t explain the fact that this sort of simple and very basic mistake really shouldn’t happen even ONE time each year. After all, every surgery has a surgical team. You would think that with a handful of extremely well paid professionals gathered around, whose one and only job at the moment is to tend to the health of the patient, at least one of them would have the presence of mind to make sure that all the items that went inside made their way out.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson

Health Sciences Institute


“Surgery Tools Left in 1,500 People a Year” Jeff Donn, Associated Press, 1/16/03
“Risk Factors for Retained Instruments and Sponges After Surgery, New England Journal of Medicine, V.348:229-235, 1/16/03
“Joppatowne Woman Sues Franklin Square for Malpractice” Associated Press, 2/10/03