a closer look at the horrors of retained surgical objects

In the medical community, there is a certain category of mistakes that are classified as “never events,” meaning they are so flagrant and so avoidable that no competent medical professional should ever commit them under any circumstances. Chief among these so-called never events are “retained surgical objects.” For those unfamiliar with this term, it refers to when medical professionals leave items like surgical instruments and sponges inside a person after a procedure is completed.

You would think that such an egregious and ridiculous error would be relatively rare occurrence. Unfortunately, statistics – and the horrific experience of thousands of patients each year – show that this simply isn’t the case. In fact, according to data gathered through various research studies and from the federal government, objects are left inside patients here in the U.S. anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000 times a year.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, it’s not scalpels, clamps or forceps that are left inside patients, but rather sponges. Of course, because they can begin to break down and rot, retained sponges can cause horrific, painful and even fatal infections over the course of months or even years.

Consider the case of a woman, we’ll call her Erica, who underwent a Cesarean section back in 2010. While the procedure was successful, Erica, a major in the U.S. Air Force, began experiencing severe abdominal distress a month after the surgery, culminating with her stomach swelling to incredible proportions and her bowels shutting down completely.

After being admitted to the hospital, X-rays determined that there was a washcloth-sized sponge inside Erica’s abdomen left over from her C-section. It took a six-hour emergency surgery to remove the sponge and three weeks of hospitalization for Erica to recover. To this day, she still suffers from digestion issues and may encounter fertility problems further down the road.

Shockingly, it appears as if many hospitals are failing to implement new technologies that can greatly reduce these types of incidents from occurring.

For instance, every package of sponges used at the Mayo Clinic comes with a barcode, which is scanned at the beginning of the procedure. Each of the sponges also has an individual bar code, and each sponge is scanned at the end of the procedure to help ensure they’re all accounted for.

To date, the clinic has not had one instance of a retained sponge.

Even more shocking is that experts indicate that systems like these can typically be implemented at a relatively reasonable cost — $8 to $12 more per operation. However, a recent survey by USA Today of the three companies that make FDA-approved sponge tracking system reveals that they have sold their systems to less than 600 U.S. hospitals, a far cry from the over 4,000 surgical hospitals here in the U.S.

Please visit our website to learn more about your options if you or a loved one has been victimized by an egregious surgical error.

Source: USA Today, “What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly,” Peter Eisler, March 8, 2013

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