You would be shocked how many times a year that foreign objects like surgical material or instruments are forgotten and left in a person’s body.  One estimate found that two-thirds of objects left in a person’s body are surgical sponges.

A report from USA Today found that it happens no less than 6,000 times per year, but some estimates put that number higher.  For example, one study found that 12.5% of all surgeries result in something left behind.  Another source, from the John Hopkins Institute, found items are left behind in a patient’s body about 40 times a week!

Retained surgical instruments can form the basis of progressive infection due to organ perforation.  In almost all occasions, it causes unbearable pain and additional invasive surgery is required to attempt to correct the mistake.  In some cases, the infection can result in permanent disability or death.

Under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, when a physician, nurse, or other surgical professional leaves a foreign object (also known by it’s formal name of “gossypiboma” when it’s a surgical sponge) in a patient’s body it qualifies as clear medical error.  When this happens and the patient is injured – which is almost always the case – a patient may have the option to pursue compensation either through settlment or a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Computed tomography (CT) scan indicating infected tissue, which caused discharge in patient. Pictured at right is the foreign object, here a typically-sized surgical sponge.

What Types Of Objects Are Left In The Body After Surgery?

If you or a loved one are experiencing unresolved, unexplained pain that may be caused from surgical instruments left behind in a patient, know that there are many potential culprits:

  • Clamps
  • Cutting blades, like scapels
  • Electrosurgical adapters
  • Forceps
  • Needles
  • Safety Pins
  • Scissors
  • Sponge
  • Towels
  • Suction Tubes and Tips
  • Surgical Sponge
  • Tweezers

The surgical sponge is the most common item left behind in a patient.  Intended to soak up liquids and biological material to allow the surgeon to clearly see and manipulate the site of the operation, they can easily become obscured behind organs within the body cavity.  This frequently occurs during operations directed in or around the stomach region.  Given that they soak up fluid and bodily liquids, unless proper procedures are followed they can become effectively camouflaged and hard to detect.

Hospitals and other surgical settings frequently use established safety protocols to avoid what hospitals term “sentinel events” with objects retained within a patient.  A “sentinel event” is defined as any unanticipated event in a healthcare setting that can result in “death or serious physical injury” to a patient, not related to the “natural course” of a patient’s illness.

Three examples of safety protocols include:

  • Ensuring that the same number of sponges are taken out as were put in (most common);
  • Attaching RFID chips to the sponges; and
  • Soaking sponges in a radiopaque substance to make them easily visible in x-rays.

The use of RFID chips, such as those manufactured by Ray-Tec, are intended to avoid human counting error.  However, even those are designed to be used only according a manufacturer’s protocol.  One drawback in using a radioplaque substance is that by the time the x-ray is used, the patient is already “closed up.”

With established safety procedures such as the count method or the use of RF-chipped surgical sponges, the risk of mistakes increase in one of three common scenarios in the surgical setting:

  • The “count and verify procedure” is wholly ignored – Standard procedure, in all hospitals, is to make sure that the same number of sponges went in the body that were taken out.  See discussion above regarding microchipping.  Another way that this problem can arise is when a new surgical team has not yet assigned roles or in poor leadership and accountability.
  • Procedural deviation – Due to emergency conditions, or those related to “side” procedures, a surgical team may decide that they want to expand or change the scope of an operation.  In this scenario, leaving a surgical sponge may be the last concern in a surgical team’s mind because they may be trying to save a patient’s life.  Other circumstances are a little less justifiable when it comes to leaving a foreign object in a body, such as when a surgeon decides to remove non-necessary growths, tags, or other non-emergent conditions.

After a patient’s surgical wound is closed with a object is forgotten the body, complications can occur as little as a few hours later to a few weeks.  Sometimes it can be as small as slight discomfort.  Other times a retained object in the body can cause full disability or a medical emergency.

It is during this stage that one would hope that a treating health professional would utilize diagnostic imaging to attempt to determine the origin of the infection.  All kinds of diagnostic imaging may be utilized such as simple x-rays, to more progressive CT scans and MRIs.  Corrective surgery may be required.  These types of procedures, which shouldn’t have been required to start with, can have disasterous consequences such as removing previously healthy tissue and organs, leading to permanent impairment and disability.  The injuries can be more than physical as well: patients may become withdrawn, depressed, and disengaged from their friends, families, and social life.

Retained Surgical Instruments And Surgical Sponges Can Qualify A Client To Compensation

Medical malpractice which result in retained instruments, tools, and sponges left behind in a patient violate a clear duty a hospital, surgeon, and other health professional have to their patient.  The most important pledge a health professional makes is found in the “Hippocratic Oath” to first “do no harm.”  Absent extenuating circumstances, it is malpractice to leave foreign objects behind in a patient.

Victims are left scarred, not just physically, but emotionally by the initial infection, pain, disability, impairment.  They are then violated at least another time by corrective surgery.

If this type of behavior happened to you or a loved one, feel free to reach out to us immediately.  An injured party may be entitled to compensation for their pain and suffering, lost wages, reduction in future earning capacity, hospital and re-hospitalization expenses, and other types of injuries.

One of the most critical things to keep in mind is that certain deadlines apply to these types of cases, depending on the type of injury, length of care, and the specific standing of a potential defendant.

The professionals at Correll Law Firm, PC can cover the entire Commonwealth of Virginia including Northern Virginia such as Winchester, Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties.

Contact A Lawyer Serving Virginia

During an initial consultation, we will review all applicable medical records that you bring to us, preliminary investigate the nature of the claim, inform you of potential limitations, such as time limits, and will endeavor to provide answers.  We do not charge a consultation fee for an initial medical malpractice matter.  We look forward to providing the best possible experience for our clients during their time of pain and recovery.  We frequently like to say, “Let us focus on the hospitals and the insurance companies and you focus on getting better.”

Take a moment and contact us today via online form or by phone at (540) 535-2005 for a free case evaluation.