“Retained Surgical Items” Grounds for Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

In the recently-reviewed case of Tucker, Jr. v. Tombigbee Healthcare Authority, the plaintiffs alleged that the health care staff was negligent after a surgical hemostat clamp was left inside her abdomen during a hysterectomy and appendix removal. medicalinstruments.jpg

Not only did the doctor fail to account for and remove the clamp at the time of the surgery, it went undiscovered for six years, until the patient began to complain of severe pain and cramping, resulting from serious infection and life-threatening medical problems, including blood clots, sepsis, infection and most likely, a stroke.

The first count of her claim was against the surgical team who left the device. The second count pertained to the doctors who failed to diagnose, treat and make timely referrals for her condition. She eventually died as a result, though not prior to filing a lawsuit.

Anderson personal injury lawyers recognize that these kinds of situations are actually far more common than you might think. They are formally called “retained surgical items,” and per a 2013 report from USA Today, research appears to suggest it happens between 4,500 and 6,000 times annually.

Accounting for more than two-thirds of these incidents? Sponges. These are the gauzy, cotton pieces that surgeons employ throughout a procedure to soak up blood and other fluids. These kinds of incidents are considered so egregious – and so preventable – that the medical profession refers to them as “never events.”

And yet, they happen several dozen times daily, all over the country.

Damages from these left-behind items can be devastating.

Take the 2005 case of a Kentucky nurse, as profiled by The New York Times. While working her overnight shift as a nurse, she began to experience severe abdominal pain. She started vomiting and couldn’t stand up straight. She underwent a CT scan, where doctors found the problem: a sponge that had been left in her abdomen from a hysterectomy four years previous.

When it was removed, doctors noted that the sponge had become embedded in the walls of her bladder, stomach and abdominal cavity walls. It had spread infection to her intestines, and a large portion of the organ had to be removed.

She subsequently won a $2.5 million medical malpractice case, although the surgeon has since appealed and the case is pending.

Most frequently, it’s abdominal operations that result in retained sponges, particularly if patients are overweight. The little 4-inch-by-4-inch squares can be easy to miss. While hospitals usually mandate that surgical teams count and recount and recount surgical equipment – including sponges.

Some hospitals have even begun to employ radio-frequency tags in order to track sponges.

But they still get lost.

At the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, researchers analyzed some 3,000 cases in which the radio technology was used. Over the course of 11 months, they found that the system helped to recover about 25 sponges.

While defendants in these cases will often cite the statute of limitations as a defense (as they did in the Tucker case), the fact is that the clock on the statute of limitations doesn’t start ticking until a person learns of the malpractice (or reasonably should have learned of it).

Contact our South Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices in Anderson by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Tucker, Jr. v. Tombigbee Healthcare Authority, Feb. 7, 2014, Alabama Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Schroeder v. Weighall – Misdiagnoses and the Statute of Limitations, Jan. 30, 2014, Anderson Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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