Every day, over a dozen patients across the United States leave the operating room with an unfortunate souvenir. When doctors close up patients with sponges, surgical instruments, or other medical supplies left inside the body, serious and potentially life-threatening infections can result.

What Does a Retained Surgical Object Case Involve?

The term retained surgical object simply refers to foreign material accidentally left inside a patient’s body after an operation. Surgical sponges account Chest X-Ray Showing a Retained Pair of Surgical Scissorsfor over two-thirds of the cases involving patients who become ill from retained surgical objects. However, this type of lawsuit can also involve suture needles, instruments, broken scalpel tips, or bits of tubing. It's estimated that 1 in 5,500 surgeries will result in a patient with a retained surgical object.

These types of cases are problematic because patients often don't know anything is wrong until they experience severe pain. At this point, the retained object has become infected and the patient will likely require emergency surgery. Consider the following examples:

  • A woman has a surgical sponge the size of a washcloth left in her abdomen after a caesarean section. Her stomach swells, her bowels shut down, and she requires emergency surgery to untangle the infected sponge from her small intestine.
  • A man goes to the doctor complaining of severe abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, and vomit with a fecal-like odor. The cause is an infected sponge from a surgery that was performed the previous year. He ends up needing surgery to remove part of his intestine and has to spend weeks in a medically induced coma.
  • A woman experiences complications after surgery to remove cancerous tissue from her rectum and colon. It’s later discovered that a surgical sponge measuring more than a square foot was left inside her abdominal cavity for several weeks. Complications from the infected sponge end up disqualifying her from further cancer treatment. One year later, she passes away from complications of colon cancer.

Who Is Most at Risk for a Surgical Error Like a Retained Object?

Not surprisingly, patients undergoing emergency procedures are most at risk of developing complications from retained surgical objects. However, even those who've had routine procedures can have this problem if the surgical team encounters complications that create a chaotic operating environment.

The majority of cases involving retained surgical objects involve sponges left in patients who've had abdominal surgery. The pelvis, thoracic cavity, and vagina are also common places for this type of error to occur.

Some studies have shown that patients with a high body mass index (BMI) are more likely to be victims of a case involving retained surgical objects. The exact reason for this is unknown, however.

Why Are Retained Surgical Objects Considered "Never Events"?

In healthcare, the term never event is used to describe medical errors that are considered very serious—but preventable. This term is used to describe cases involving retained surgical objects as well as cases of surgery being performed on the wrong body part or the wrong person.

Because retained surgical objects are considered never events, hospitals implement a number of practices to account for the tools used during surgical procedures. Some of the most common include:

  • A manual pre- and post-surgery count of sponges and operating instruments, with the patient immediately taken to x-ray if there are missing items.
  • Using special sponges that are equipped with inventory bar codes.
  • Using radiofrequency detection systems that have chips sewn into the pocket of the gauze and require a surgeon to use a wand or mat at the end of the procedure to verify no foreign material is left in the body.

Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers will not pay the cost of medical care necessary to fix complications from a never event. Hospitals must absorb these costs on their own.

Is A Retained Surgical Object an Example of Medical Malpractice?

Any case involving retained surgical objects falls under the umbrella of medical malpractice. A subset of tort law dealing with professional negligence, medical malpractice refers to any conduct by a surgeon or other healthcare professional that deviates from standard practices and causes harm to a patient as a result.

Medical malpractice awards are difficult to estimate because they are based on a number of factors, such as your past and future medical bills and any loss of earnings or future earning capacity caused by the error. However, research studies have shown that malpractice claims from retained surgical objects generally cost hospitals between $100,000 and $200,000 per case. There have been multiple cases of lawsuits with as much as $2 million to $5 million in damages for the plaintiff.

The Inland Empire Law Group is dedicated to assisting patients with retained surgical objects who received treatment at hospitals or surgical centers in the Inland Empire, including hospitals in Fontana, San Bernardino, Colton, Victorville, Riverside and other local facilities. Contact us at (888) 694.3529 for details.


David Ricks
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Rancho Cucamonga Personal Injury Lawyer Serving the Inland Empire Community