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Thousands of patients each year leave OR with dangerous souvenirs

Each day in the United States, more than a dozen patients leave operating rooms with sponges, needles and other surgical items left in their bodies after surgery. Known technically as a “retained surgical item,” this type of surgical error is considered so negligent that it is referred to as a “never event” in the medical world. But it happens far more often than the classification would suggest.

In the spring of 2010, an Air Force major was discharged from the hospital after delivering a baby via cesarean section. But it soon became clear that something was wrong after her stomach swelled so much that she looked pregnant again and her bowels eventually stopped working. After X-rays were taken, it was evident that a surgical sponge the size of a washcloth had been left inside of the woman following her surgery.

In a six-hour emergency surgery, doctors removed the infected mass from her intestines and the woman spent three weeks in the hospital recovering. The scary thing is that this woman’s story is far from a freak accident. In fact, thousands of people each year are harmed when surgical items are left in their bodies and cause infection. Sometimes we hear about cases involving forceps, clamps and other tools being left in patients, but it’s most often gauzy, cotton sponges that are forgotten.

Even though this is a fairly common — and admittedly egregious — surgical error that is occurring in hospitals all over the United States, most hospitals have not implemented technologies that are available to put a stop to it. Additionally, there is no federal reporting requirement for when surgical tools are left in patients, so there’s no real way of knowing how common the problem is, and hospitals can sweep the mistakes under the rug.

Source: USA Today, “What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly,” Peter Eisler, March 8, 2013