Our research reveals, however, that these two tragedies are only the tip of a frighteningly large iceberg when it comes to wrong-site surgery, unnecessary amputations, and horrific surgical errors.
Although the operations took place on different sides of the Atlantic, they shared a common result. Two people were catastrophically injured by inexcusable surgical errors.
In the first case (just now being reported by news sources in the UK), a 52-year-old woman had a routine mammogram which supposedly showed a suspicious shadow. She was referred to a local hospital, NHS Highland’s Raigmore Hospital in Inverness (UK), where an MRI and biopsy were performed.
By telephone, Marjory Patterson was told she had an aggressive type of breast cancer. Later, doctors advised her that a mastectomy was needed to save her life. She agreed, and the surgery was performed.
Three weeks later, doctors admitted the biopsy they had examined belonged to another patient and that Mrs. Patterson never had cancer. Needless to say, she has been devastated by this unforgivable mistake which the hospital referred to only as a “tragic case where a mistake was made.”
The Daily Mail reported Mrs. Patterson as stating: “No one can understand what it’s like to be told you have a disease that could kill you. Then to be told it was a mistake is just disgusting. They can’t bring my breast back, I am disfigured for life.”
Presently, efforts are being made to negotiate a monetary settlement; however, the two sides are still very far apart.
As bad as this case is, the error did not affect Mrs. Patterson’s actual lifespan. In the next case (and an older third case) the same cannot be said.
Only last week, the New York State Health Department announced it was launching an investigation into what happened at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, where surgeons removed a man’s perfectly healthy kidney instead of his cancerous one.
Now, the patient is left with only one diseased kidney which must also be removed to prevent the spread of the cancer. As a result, the patient will need constant dialysis and a kidney transplant in order to survive.
This horrible case is very similar to one in the UK in January 2000 when two surgeons removed a man’s healthy kidney instead of his diseased one. One of the doctors told a disciplinary panel that he had collected x-rays but had read them the “wrong way round.” He realized something had gone wrong when, two hours after the surgery, the anesthetist told him that the man had not produced any urine.
The surgeon then tried to "rescue" the good kidney so that it could be replanted but it had already been put in sterilizing agent and that was not possible. An attempt to get the man’s diseased remaining kidney to work was also doomed.
Five weeks after the botched surgery the 69-year-old man died on 1 March 2000.
While one would hope these types of horrific mistakes were rare, the truth is they are not. From 1985 to 1995 alone, the Physicians Insurers Association of America (PIAA) counted 225 claims for wrong-site surgery by its 110,000 doctors in the United States. Also consider the following cases:
•In 1995, at Tampa’s University Community Hospital, a surgeon amputated the wrong leg of 51- year-old Willie King.
•The 59-year-old mother of a prominent Indian film star was brought to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to have a malignant brain tumor removed. The neurosurgeon operated on the wrong side of her brain. The woman now suffers from severely impaired vision and no awareness of her left side. (Washington Post, 7/25/95).
•A surgeon at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cut off the wrong breast of a 69-year-old cancer patient during a mastectomy. (USA Today, 3/27/95).
•A surgeon in Boston removed the wrong kidney from a patient after failing to check x- rays that would have revealed this tragic error. (Boston Globe, 6/1/96).
•Jesica Santillan was a 17 year-old girl from Mexico who was smuggled into the United States to receive treatment for a life-threatening heart condition. She waited three years for a donor heart and lungs to be found. When the heart and lung transplant, which was supposed to save her life, was finally performed, her condition only worsened. It was then discovered that the heart and lungs she received did not match her blood type. Jesica required a second transplant operation two weeks later but the damage to her brain and other organs was irreparable. Jesica experienced brain damage and kidney failure, was ultimately declared brain dead, and removed from a respirator.
After this tragedy, Duke University Hospital, which admitted it had made an inexcusable medical mistake in cross-checking blood types, initiated a three-person verification system to ensure that the blood type of the donor and recipient match. This error, however, wasted two donor hearts and four donor lungs, caused a young girl to lose her one chance at a normal life, inflicted two weeks of unimaginable pain and suffering on the child including the need for a second transplant operation, and it killed her.
•A 67-year-old man named Hurshell Ralls went into surgery for bladder cancer and, while under anesthesia, the surgeon removed his penis and testicles because he concluded that the cancer had spread to the penis. No one had ever discussed the possibility of such radical additional surgery with Mr. Ralls who was shocked to learn what had happened to him at a time when he was unable to make a conscious decision about the removal of his penis and testicles. Later, after examining a tissue sample, another doctor concluded that Ralls never had cancer of the penis.
•In May of 2002, Linda McDougal was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy at the United Hospital of St. Paul Minnesota. After the surgery, McDougal was told that she had never had cancer. Apparently, her slides had been mixed up with those of another patient.
Clearly, these tragic, inexcusable errors have continued to occur at even the most prestigious hospitals and regardless of the safety procedures in place to guard against them.