When Surgeries Go Wrong

Undergoing any surgical procedure involves a mix of hope and fear. We hope for the best because the surgery is a necessary means to a desirable outcome — whether fixing a health problem or a cosmetic issue — but we fear that something could go wrong. Even for the most routine operations, accidents can and do happen, and that risk only increases in trickier cases. While the chances of a botched surgery is rare when compared to the vast number of successful ones, sometimes they go wrong in spectacular fashion.

Take the case of an Army veteran named Glenford Turner. The 61-year-old Connecticut resident alleged that a surgeon performing a prostatectomy on him in 2013 left behind a scalpel in his abdomen somewhere between his rectum and bladder. The man lived with pain in his abdomen for the next four years until an MRI for an unrelated issue in 2017 revealed the problem. The magnetic force of the machine caused the scalpel to move and cause excruciating pain, forcing the technician to halt the scan and call for an investigation. The lawsuit states that a surgeon trainee from the VA who had performed the robot-assisted laparoscopic procedure in 2013 failed to follow-up with a simple and standard X-ray to make sure no instruments were left behind.

Botched surgeries aren’t limited to the United States, of course. In the U.K., a woman underwent an operation in 2014 to help her with a bowel disorder, but without her consent, the surgeon decided to also remove her healthy ovaries. When the woman, Lucinda Methuen-Campbell, asked her surgeon why he did this, he told her that they were “in the way.” Because of the emotional and physical trauma related to this incident, Methuen-Campbell committed suicide in 2018.

When Jennifer Melton delivered a healthy baby boy in December of 2015, the hospital performed an unneeded frenulectomy on him, a procedure that clips away the tissue under the tongue that connects it to the floor of the mouth. For some babies, if this tissue is too tight, it can hinder breastfeeding. When the woman was informed that they were going to operate, the new mother told them that her baby had no problem breastfeeding, but the hospital went forward with it anyway. Though the doctor said the baby would be fine, a frenulectomy can cause problems with eating and speech later in life.

Some surgeons have a history of botched operations. A neurosurgeon in Texas named Christopher Duntsch was charged with assault for all the damage he had done to patients between 2012 and 2013. In one case, he left a sponge inside a patient, and in another, he operated on the wrong side of the patient’s spine. Determining who’s to blame for a wrong-site surgery can be a matter of investigation, but in this case, it appears to have been the surgeon.

You shouldn’t hold on to irrational fear when entering any surgical procedure, but you should know the possible outcomes and be prepared. Consult with your doctor to understand the risks, and in doing so, you’ll be able to assess his or her ability to deliver on promises.