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When a medical tool gets left behind - foreign objects and why they can hurt

Posted by Scott M. Peterson | Jan 19, 2018

The Washington Post recently reported on a story of an Army Veteran who discovered a surgical scalpel that had been left in his stomach following surgery - for four years!

This is what's known as a "foreign object" - it's something that does not belong, and that can cause severe damage including internal infections. Statistics suggest that somewhere between 1,500 and 6,000 foreign objects are left behind in patients every year (and those are only the one's that are discovered).

How, you ask, does this happen?

Well, the scalpel in this situation is an extreme example.  Typically things like sponges, clamps and small surgical clips are left behind.  Not that this is any better.  Surgical units typically have a "count" of all equipment, and, in theory, at the end of the surgery every piece of equipment (including sponges, clamps, scalpels, etc.) should be accounted for.  Unfortunately this is not always the case. 

How is a foreign object discovered?

Sometimes foreign objects are discovered shortly after the surgery.  The patient might complaint of severe discomfort (usually in the abdominal/gut area), which will lead to an examination and (hopefully) diagnostic films being taken.  The appropriate films (often an xray) will typically identify the foreign object.  

Other times it can take years for the object to be discovered.  In the case involving the Army Veteran, for example, the object was said to have been in his gut for four years.   It's something of a miracle that a scalpel was inside his gut for four years without killing him.

Proving a foreign object case

New York generally recognizes a legal theory known in latin as res ipsa loquitor, or "the thing speaks for itself."  Essentially, this means that what happened could not have happened in the absence of negligence; in the absence of a mistake that should not have happened.  A classic example is this: if you are walking down the street and a television falls from a building onto your head, this could not have happened in the absence of negligence.  In the absence of the failure by someone (the building owner, apartment owner, etc.) to act with reasonable care. 

The retained foreign object case is another classic example of something that ordinarily does not happen in the absence of negligence or malpractice - it simply does not happen if everyone takes reasonable precautions.

Because of this, it often becomes somewhat easier for the injured person to prove who was at fault (if, of course, the injured person is able to identify when the surgery occurred which resulted in the retained foreign object).  Occasionally the medical chart will actually reflect that the sponge count was off, for example, however in a case such as the VA scalpel case, it is much less likely to find documentation of the error.

Damages resulting from an object left behind after surgery can range from minor (slight discomfort), to major (severe infection, multiple additional surgeries, or even death).  In many cases when the object is discovered another surgery is performed to remove it.

If you have questions about foreign object cases contact us today.

About the Author

Scott M. Peterson

Scott M. Peterson is the founding partner of D'Orazio Peterson, having left a partnership at a large regional law firm to limit his practice and focus on helping people protect their families.

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