Surgical Errors

Medical negligence in the operating room is often associated with complex surgeries, such as heart, spine or brain surgery. However, surgical errors and medical negligence can occur during even the most common surgeries, including colon, vascular, gynecological, laser vision correction, or sinus surgeries. Although not common, there are specific examples of documented surgical errors. As nurses, we know the inner workings of the healthcare system and know that a mistake may result in unfortunate or even devastating consequences.

The delicate tissues of the colon, large intestine, or bowel are often encountered when a surgeon attempts routine removal of a polyp or mass. Proper measures must be taken to prevent perforation of the bowel during colonoscopy or surgical removal of a mass or polyp. If surgical errors such as perforation occur, bacteria from inside the bowel can leak into the abdominal cavity and cause widespread and life threatening infection. Peritonitis and sepsis resulting from a perforated bowel can compromise the patient's organs, including the liver, kidneys and lungs and may result in death if not quickly and properly diagnosed and treated.

Gynecological surgeries, such as tubal ligation or hysterectomy, if improperly performed can cause excessive bleeding or perforation of vital organs such as the colon or bladder. Measures to reduce the risk of surgical errors such as blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) should be taken and are essential to maintain adequate blood flow in the legs during and after surgery. In addition, patients undergoing gynecological surgeries must be monitored closely after surgery for signs of deep vein thrombosis, which can travel to the lung and cause pulmonary embolism and death.

Nearly all surgeries involve the use of surgical instruments such as scalpels, clamps, and pads. These items must be carefully counted before, and after, every procedure. Failure to properly perform this instrument count can result in an item being left behind inside the patient's body after the surgery is completed! Nurses know all too well that the patient often has no idea that this has occurred until it is too late: internal injuries, perforation of internal organs, and bleeding may occur postoperatively that can necessitate multiple corrective surgeries, extensive scarring, and can compromise the patient's overall strength and respiratory function due to trauma and multiple courses of anesthesia.

Even bedside procedures can cause significant injuries. A real life example: a catheter that was supposed to be placed in the jugular vein was misplaced into the patient's carotid artery by a resident, and resulted in the patient's death. This type of surgical error - improper placement of a feeding tube in a patient's trachea or windpipe - can cause permanent brain damage or death within minutes.