Imagine waking up in the middle of a surgical operation and feeling the pain of the incision. You feel the surgeon’s probing hands inside your body but you are paralyzed, unable to move or scream. The surgeons go about their business, unaware that you are conscious. All you can do is listen to the banter of the surgical team as they discuss the latest news story.
In another scenario, you finally agree to have your diseased leg amputated to be left with one good leg. Unfortunately, you wake up and discover the diseased leg is still attached and your good leg was mistakenly cut off.
Some people seek medical attention for an illness and are relieved to be told they do not have any serious medical conditions. A few months later, they discover that diagnosis was wrong and they are gravely ill with a life-threatening disease.
These are only a few examples of medical accidents that injure millions of people every year and kill more than 250,000. Here are examples of a few of the most costly and dangerous cases of medical malpractice.
Removal of the wrong limb or organ
Sadly, this happens more often than a person would think and the results can be life-changing or fatal. Although hospitals have procedures instituted to prevent this from occurring, a John Hopkins study shows that “never events” such as wrong site surgery happens more than 4,000 times a year in the U.S. alone. Here are some examples.
- Willie King made national headlines in 1995 when surgeons amputated the wrong foot. The hospital settled with him for $1.15 million and the doctor was fined $10,000. The correct foot was amputated about a month later. Mr. King, who died in 2001, said he never adjusted to the discomfort of the prosthetic feet he had to wear for the rest of his life.
- As recently as August 2012 at Sharp Memorial Hospital in California, 53-year-old Paul Kibbett’s healthy kidney was removed instead of his cancerous one. He will spend the remainder of his shortened life on dialysis.
- In 2013, the well-known Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York made news when it admitted it had removed the wrong kidney from an unnamed 76-year-old man. The victim had two diseased kidneys although one had less damage than the other, which led to the initial confusion.
- Dana Carvey, former Saturday Night Live cast member known as the “church lady,” underwent heart bypass surgery. Unfortunately, the doctors bypassed the wrong artery. Emergency surgery was required to bypass the correct artery and repair damage that was caused by the wrong bypass surgery. It took Carvey nearly two years to recover from the botched surgery. The surgeon called the incident an “honest mistake.” Carvey sued for $7.5 million and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
- Benjamin Houghton, a 47 year-old Air Force veteran underwent surgery at a Veterans Administration Medical Center for removal of a diseased testicle only to wake up and discover the healthy testicle had been removed. The doctors apologized to the veteran for their mistake and he collected $200,000 in a settlement.
It is estimated that every year in the U.S., 20,000 to 40,000 people wake up during the middle of their operations. Their responses vary from being slightly aware of what is happening to experiencing severe physical pain. The American Medical Association acknowledges this happens, but appears to downplay the severity and frequency of the awareness event, claiming such events are rare.
The Anesthesia Awareness Campaign, Inc., started by victim Carol Weihrer, believes the reporting of such incidents is inaccurate and that between one and two hundred anesthesia awareness incidents happen every day.
- In 2009, Ms. Weihrer underwent surgery to have an eye removed. The surgery took nearly six hours. Almost half of that time, Ms. Weihrer was awake but paralyzed. She felt the pain but was unable to speak or move so she could not communicate to anyone that she was awake and feeling the pain.She heard the surgeon listening to disco music and give instructions to “pull harder.” The experience caused her life-long emotional injury. She now counsels other victims of this and is a public speaker on the topic.
- A 73 year-old man, Sherman Sizemore, felt the incision in his abdomen and felt excruciating pain as the surgeon’s hands explored his abdomen. The experience was so traumatic, he committed suicide 16 days after the operation.
Errors in diagnosis
Different types of errors in diagnosis occur. A doctor may fail to diagnose a serious condition, telling patients they are just fine when in fact, they have a serious and life-threatening disease or condition that needs to be treated immediately. Another error occurs when people are told they have a serious life-threatening disease and undergo extreme treatment only to discover that they were just fine and the treatment was unnecessary. Here are some examples.
- Failure to diagnose: Not every case of failure to diagnose is medical malpractice. There may be good reasons why the doctor was unable to make an accurate diagnosis. Such was not the case with an unnamed young woman in her early thirties who discovered a lump in her breast upon self-examination. She made an appointment with her trusted long-term gynecologist who briefly examined the lump and told the patient that there was no cause for alarm. The lump was just fibrous breast tissue.A few months later, the woman noted the lump was growing and went to a different doctor who did extensive tests, including a biopsy, and determined that the lump was cancerous. By this time, it had grown to a size that required a complete mastectomy. Pathology reports indicated the cancer had spread to some lymph nodes. Genetic testing indicated that more aggressive treatment could prevent later development of cancer. The woman ultimately had her other breast removed as well as her uterus. It is too soon to know if there has been metastasis, but with the cancer in the lymph nodes, the woman lives every day fearing that cancer will be found in other places in her body. This is a worry that could have been alleviated with early diagnosis and treatment before the cancer had traveled to the lymph nodes.
- Misdiagnosis: Kim Tutt, a 34-year-old Texas mother was told she had cancer in her lower jaw. She underwent radical surgery where the bones in her face and all her teeth were removed and replaced with bone chips from her leg. She was permanently disfigured, but believed the surgery had at least bought her extra time to spend with her two young children. She still expected to die with only a few months to live after the five radical surgeries.Shortly after the last surgery, her doctor informed her there had been a mistake. There had never been any cancer and all her pain, suffering, emotional distress at the expectation of an early death and her numerous surgeries were unnecessary.
Leaving objects inside the patient during surgery
The most common medical error occurs when surgeons leave instruments inside a patient. Nelson Bailey, a Florida judge experienced this first hand when, instead of getting better after abdominal surgery, he got worse. After five months, examination revealed a foot-long, foot-wide sponge had been left inside of him. He experienced a second surgery for removal of the offending object.
In June 2000, 49-year-old Donald Church went to the University of Washington Medical Center to have a large malignant tumor removed. Church complained of unbearable pain a week post-surgery, but doctors told him that is was just part of recovery. Two months after the surgery, Church went in for a second opinion where a CAT scan showed that he had a two-inch wide, 13-inch long metal retractor still inside his body. He was awarded a $97,000 settlement.