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Jonathan Rosenfeld

March 2, 2023

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Every year, thousands of people have retained surgical instruments or foreign bodies left behind in their bodies after surgery. The surgical team’s carelessness can result in pain, life-threatening infections, and even death for the patient.

When this form of medical malpractice occurs, an individual can seek recovery of damages through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Patients will likely need additional surgery from the adversities they experience from this surgical error.

Our Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers, LLC legal team has decades of experience handling complex personal injury cases, including medical malpractice from retained surgical objects. We are committed to providing the best possible representation to our clients.

Our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers will fight to get you the compensation you deserve. Call our office at (888) 424-5757 today, and we will schedule a free consultation. We work on a contingency fee basis, which means you only have to pay us if we have a favorable settlement or jury award on your behalf.

Surgical instruments

What Types of Retained Surgical Items Are Left Behind?

The operating medical teams use hundreds of surgical tools during a surgical procedure. Many surgical items are used within the surgical opening to control bleeding and keep the area accessible.

Some everyday retained surgical objects include:

  • Sponges
  • Scissors, tweezers, needles
  • Scalpels
  • Gauze
  • Retractors
  • Clamps, forceps
  • Knife blades
  • Suction tips and tubes

By far, sponges are the most common piece of surgical tool left behind, as they are often indistinguishable from the surrounding tissue.

A sponge will be challenging to see on an X-ray reading because it can easily be mistaken for an abscess. It is estimated that two-thirds of all surgical items left behind in the body are sponges.

Most cases of retained surgical sponges include sponges left in the abdomen, vagina, thoracic cavity, and pelvis.

Risks Associated with Retained Surgical Instruments

Medical professionals must use many surgical items and not lose track of them during a surgical procedure. The longer a surgery may take, the more tools are needed to complete a procedure.

These two factors can increase the risk of medical error:

  • Human factors, including exhaustion, increased chaos, and distractions, can play a role in losing surgical items inside the patient’s body. Surgical teams can become tired and distracted during a lengthy surgery.
  • Emergency surgery or a change in procedure can create further chaos in the operating room and lead to a higher risk of retained surgical instruments.

According to the Joint Commission, unintended retained surgical items have been the most frequent event reported that causes death or severe harm in patients.

Contributing Factors for Retained Surgical Instrument Errors

Surgical teams must have a proper medical protocol and organized systems to avoid retained surgical items after surgical procedures. Some contributing risk factors for a retained surgical object are listed below.

  • Keeping an inventory of surgical items: Item counts should be made before, and after the surgery, bar codes attached to tools to track inventory, and a complete examination must be performed before closing the opening. Some facilities have electronic tracking systems in place to keep track of surgical instruments.

These devices assist medical professionals, and the surgical team knows it is safe to close the patient’s opening. A surgical instrument is considered retained if found after complete skin closure.

  • A change in the procedure: If a complication occurs during a surgical procedure, the medical team will likely need to quickly change the types of tools they will need.
  • Emergency procedures: An emergency surgery can also have a high risk of human error due to the chaos and rush to prepare the proper instruments for the patient.
  • Poor communication: In cases where there is a chaotic situation, such as an emergency procedure, it may be difficult for the surgical team to understand who is in charge of keeping count of every surgical item. A sound communication system must also be implemented if the surgical team is in and out of surgery.

Complications That Can Occur from Retained Surgical Instruments

Retained surgical items left behind in a patient’s body can lead to serious adverse events. Sometimes a retained surgical item can have little effect on the patient’s health.

In many medical malpractice cases, severe injury and complications can occur from a retained surgical item.

The Effects of a Retained Sponge

Retained surgical sponges will begin to rot and accumulate bacteria, resulting in infection and ulceration in the patient’s internal organs. A retained sponge in the patient’s body can further affect organs by wrapping around them.

A retained sponge is also likely left within the body cavity because they quickly become bloody and blend in. A patient with a retained surgical sponge may need to undergo major surgery to remove it.

Complications That Result from Sharp-Retained Objects

Sharp instruments, including needles, scalpels, and blades, can puncture tissues, veins, and vital organs. Perforated organs, heavy internal bleeding, internal tissue damage, and other complications can occur in a person with a sharp, retained surgical object.

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.

Unretrieved Device Fragments

Unretrieved device fragments are broken or fractured parts of medical devices left in a patient’s body. These device fragments can include broken screws, needle tips, and part of a drill bit.

Adverse events from unretrieved device fragments can include local tissue reaction, perforation and obstruction of blood vessels, infection, and death.

Infections Caused by Retained Items

Infection is likely with any retained item and can lead to pain, swelling, fever, organ damage, and even death. If a patient has an infection, they must seek medical attention immediately

Signs That You Have a Retained Surgical Instrument

The primary symptom of a retained surgical item for an individual will be severe pain. Other signs that can indicate you have a retained surgical instrument are:

  • A high fever
  • Fatigue
  • Infection
  • The incision area contains pus or blood
  • Discoloration around the incision area
  • Edges of the incision start to open
  • Constipation or difficulty urinating
  • Vomiting or coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Strong odors coming from the incision area

Symptoms can occur very soon after the surgery, but there are also cases where symptoms can take years to surface. If a long time has passed since the procedure, medical experts can find it difficult to determine that a retained item is the cause.

You should consult your doctor as soon as you experience these symptoms to prevent further damage.

After you consult your doctor, make sure you contact an experienced attorney. They will be able to help you through the process of recovering compensation for everything you endured, including further surgery to remove the item and hospital stays to treat infection, pain, and suffering.

Precautions and Testing for Identifying Retained Objects

Medical professionals may use X-rays to find retained items, but small objects like needles may not be found in a scan. Finding a retained item can be challenging due to the fragment’s location, possible object migration, and patient anatomy.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) testing may also be used to locate an item and can cause metal fragments to migrate. Once the retained item is found, the patient must undergo another surgery.

There are some cases where removing a small retained item may be unnecessary. A method that allows retained instruments to surface before a patient experiences symptoms are thorough follow-up examinations.

A missing sponge or device fragment can be easily missed during and after surgery. A patient may undergo an X-ray during a follow-up visit, revealing any surgical item left inside.

A precaution that the surgery team can take during a procedure is to place used sponges in clear bags before disposing of them so that the staff can make an accurate count. The hospital can also perform audits and observe staff members when they perform surgical counts.

Retained Foreign Objects are Preventable Medical Errors

The John Hopkins Institute found that a retained surgical item is left inside patients around 39 times a week in the US. These surgical injuries are sometimes referred to as “never events” because they are so severe that doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals agree they should never occur. Unfortunately, medical errors occur, and hundreds of people are victims of retained foreign objects every month.

These medical errors are considered identifiable and preventable and can result in severe consequences to the patient.

These situations also reveal a problem in patient safety and the credibility of the healthcare facility where this complication occurs. Medical facilities need well-maintained systems to prevent patients from enduring devastating injuries.

The accurate number of retained foreign objects is difficult to determine because there are instances where medical staff has been encouraged not to report an inaccurate count to avoid liability issues. Facilities should work to improve their systems and enact new measures if necessary.

A patient needing another surgery and more treatment will accrue additional medical costs and suffer a lower quality of life. The surgeon, other staff members, and the hospital will likely be held responsible for this medical error in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Compensation in a Retained Surgical Instruments Case

Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals owe their patients a duty to meet a recognized standard of care. When they fail to fulfill that duty due to retained surgical instrument injuries, patients and their families have a right to seek full and fair compensation for their harm.

In a successful retained surgical instruments case, you may be able to recover compensation for the following:

  • The original surgery
  • All treatments required to remove and heal from the retained surgical instrument
  • Current and future costs of treatment for your related injuries
  • Additional surgery and corrective surgery
  • Lost wages
  • Reduced earning capability
  • Pain and suffering

If your loved one passed away due to retained surgical instrument injury, you might be able to seek compensation for a different set of damages in a medical negligence lawsuit. Our law firm handles wrongful death lawsuits as well. Call our medical malpractice lawyers today to learn more about this legal action.

Medical Malpractice Attorneys Prosecuting Cases When Surgeons Leave Instruments in The Body

When a surgical instrument is left in the body after surgery and causes injury, it is usually a clear medical negligence case. This medical error should never happen; victims should receive financial compensation for their injuries and future medical care.

Patient safety must be handled seriously because patients are already vulnerable during surgical procedures. A patient can suffer life-devastating consequences when a surgical team is negligent in maintaining patient safety and keeping track of surgical instruments.

Free Retained Surgery Instrument Malpractice Consultations

If you or a loved one is a victim of retained surgical instrument malpractice, our medical malpractice attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC can help. Our attorneys are experienced at handling these complex cases and will fight to compensate you for your damages.

Our Chicago law firm will thoroughly investigate your situation and guide you through filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. Call our office at (888) 424-5757, and we will schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

All confidential or sensitive information you share with our legal team remains private through an attorney-client relationship.


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