Retained Foreign Body: When Surgeons Leave Pieces Behind

It’s not uncommon for a patient to suffer injuries from a retained foreign body left in his or her body following a surgical procedure. These actions, referred to as “never events” in the medical community, should not occur when a patient receives the appropriate standard of care. When they do occur, they can cause serious injuries, health complications, or even death to the patient.

What Are Never Events?

Never events are caused by egregious medical errors during surgical procedures or other healthcare treatments. These types of medical errors are defined within the medical community as egregious conduct by medical professionals because they are completely preventable and should never occur.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), never events happen frequently during surgical procedures on patients, and they are responsible for approximately 99,000 patient deaths in the United States every year. It’s estimated that more than 4,000 cases of never-event surgical errors alone occur in U.S. hospitals, surgical centers, and outpatient clinics each year, and over 70% of these errors result in patient fatalities. Common never event examples include:

Surgical Errors: Surgical errors occur when the wrong surgery is performed, or the surgery is performed on the wrong patient or the wrong body part. During surgical procedures, errors commonly occur when a surgical sponge, surgical implement, or medical device is left inside the patient. The “Never Event” surgical errors in U.S. hospitals, surgical centers, and clinics occur frequently throughout the country.

Contamination: Contamination occurs when the surgical procedure is performed with an implement that is not properly sterilized, a contaminated medical device, or incorrect types of gauze or mesh. The patient may also be given the incorrect sedative or drugs and medications before, during, and after surgery.

Improper Patient Care: Improper patient care occurs when a patient is given inadequate care following surgery due to errors in the patient’s chart, errors in medications and doses, and the lack of follow-up care by doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers.

Lack of Patient Protection: Lack of patient protection occurs when a patient is improperly discharged, leaves the hospital on his or her own, or attempts suicide following a surgical procedure. These events usually occur when a patient is not properly monitored after surgery.

Environmental Events: Environmental never events happen in a hospital when a patient receives burn injuries from electrical shock procedures, oxygen from lines that contain no gas or the wrong gas, and bed restraints during surgery, during recovery, or while in a hospital bed.

Radiological Events: Radiological never events happen when patients are undergoing testing procedures and are exposed to high levels of radiation or drugs. Testing procedures may include X-rays, MRIs, or other tests that require dyes to be injected into the patient’s body.

Common Retained Surgical Instruments in Chicago Surgeries

According to medical research in the United States, thousands of patients are injured every year from things left in the body during surgeries. When this happens, the patient can develop severe pain, internal bleeding, internal infections, blood poisoning, sepsis, and even life-threatening conditions that result in death. Common types of retained foreign body left in patients include:

  • Clamps and forceps
  • Gauze
  •  Knife blades and scalpels
  • Needles, scissors, and tweezers
  • Sponges
  • Suction tips and tubes

According to retained surgical instruments statistics, surgical sponges are by far the most common object left in the body after surgery. The reason this type of surgical tool is left behind in patients so often is because a surgical sponge is difficult to distinguish from surrounding body tissues. Additionally, surgical sponges are difficult to see on X-rays, and they are often mistaken for an abscess in the body.

According to medical research, unintended retained surgical items have been the most frequent type of “never event” reported that causes severe illness, injury, or death in surgical patients. When surgical sponges are left inside patients, they will begin to rot and accumulate bacteria, resulting in internal infections and ulceration in the patient’s internal organs. A retained sponge in the patient’s body causes serious damage to internal organs by wrapping around them. When complications arise, the patient may need to undergo major surgery to remove the retained surgical sponge.

How to Prevent Retained Surgical Foreign Bodies

When any type of retained foreign body is left in a surgical patient, it must be removed as soon as possible to prevent severe illness, injury, or possible death to the patient. According to the Johns Hopkins Institute, retained surgical items left inside of patients is a completely preventable error, yet it occurs approximately 39 times each week in the United States.

To prevent these types of errors, precautions must be taken by surgeons, physicians, nurses, and others assisting in the operating room. This may involve using X-rays, MRIs, and Ultrasounds to detect any type of retained foreign body in a surgical patient before the patient’s surgery is completed.

X-rays can be used to locate retained items like surgical sponges, but small objects like needles may not be seen clearly in an X-ray. To prevent surgical sponges from being left behind, the surgical team can place used sponges in clear bags so they can be counted before disposing of them. Sponges should be counted prior to the surgical procedure and again before the procedure is finalized. The hospital can also perform audits and observe staff members when they perform surgical counts.

MRIs, magnetic resonance imaging, can be used to locate surgical tools and metal fragments, however, MRIs can cause metal fragments to move to a different location in the patient, so caution must be taken. If an MRI detects signs of metal fragments later after the surgery is completed, the patient will have to undergo a second surgery to remove them.

There are some cases where removing a small retained foreign body may be unnecessary, but caution must be taken. If a patient is experiencing symptoms following a surgical procedure, the patient should discuss those symptoms with his or her doctor in a follow-up examination. Common symptoms of a retained foreign body include the following:

  • Discoloration or odors around the incision area
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  • High fever over 102 degrees
  • Signs of an infection like redness and swelling
  • Vomiting or coughing up blood

Possible Complications From Retained Surgical Instruments

Complications that develop from surgical sponges include pain and swelling, internal bleeding, internal infections, blood poisoning, sepsis, permanent injuries and disabilities, and death. When sharp instruments like knife blades, needles, and scalpels are left behind, they can puncture tissues, veins, and vital organs. If a sharp, retained surgical item punctures the stomach or one of the intestines, the contents of these organs can leak into the abdominal cavity, causing an infection called peritonitis. Emergency surgery is required for this complication. When device fragments like broken screws, needle tips, and parts of a drill bit are left behind, they often include obstruction of blood vessels, internal infections, and perforated tissues, all of which can result in death.

When a patient suffers an illness or injury from any type of retained foreign body following surgery, he or she should contact a Chicago surgical error lawyer as soon as possible to discuss filing a medical malpractice lawsuit against the responsible party. Although medical malpractice cases are often complicated, a lawyer who has experience and legal knowledge in these types of cases can make a big impact on the outcome of the case. While some cases proceed to a court trial, others may be resolved through a settlement agreement. An experienced lawyer can handle both with successful results.

Your lawyer will know what legal action to take and how to prove medical malpractice to get you the compensation you need for your injuries. Medical malpractice cases require documented medical evidence of injuries, eyewitness testimonies by physicians, and proof of a physician’s breach of duty for patient care to hold up in court. If you pursue a settlement agreement rather than a court trial, your lawyer will negotiate a favorable settlement for you with all involved parties.

In Illinois, medical malpractice lawsuits must be filed within two years from when the injury occurred or when you reasonably recognized your injury. Once four years pass after your injury occurred, Illinois courts will not allow you to file your medical malpractice lawsuit, and they will dismiss your case. You will no longer be able to collect compensation to cover your current and future medical bills, lost wages, future loss of earning potential, physical pain and suffering, and emotional distress and trauma.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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