Can I Sue if a Doctor Left a Foreign Object in My Body? 

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Every invasive medical procedure comes with risk. Patients who undergo surgery typically expect their procedure will be performed safely, skillfully, and without complications. After the recovery period, the patient should experience better health than before.

Unfortunately, a proper recovery is not possible for patients who discover a foreign object was left in their body during surgery every year. This medical mistake is so common, in fact, there is a name for sponges, needles, clamps, and other objects left in the body after an operation: retained surgical bodies (RSB). 

An RSB can cause serious health problems for the patient, especially if it goes undetected for a long period. This discussion explores why medical negligence occurs and what you can do if your doctor’s medical mistake caused your pain and disability, leading to a medical malpractice case. 

How Common Is the Problem?

Patients discover foreign objects left behind after surgery more than you might imagine. According to one estimate, foreign objects are left in patients at a rate of one per every 1,000 operations.  

Another study conducted by Johns Hopkins University suggests the problem is more widespread. They found surgical staff experience an unintended retention of a foreign object (URFO) up to 40 times per week. Even if the entire object is not left behind, small pieces of sponges, gauze, and other objects can break off and get stuck in the patient.

These are just the incidents that are reported. It is likely there are patients who are unaware they have retained a surgical tool or instrument in the body after their operation. 

Why Are Surgical Materials Left Behind?

Depending on the type of operation, a surgeon may use up to 250 different tools and instruments during the procedure. When the individuals responsible for keeping track of these objects is not paying attention, items can easily go unaccounted for.

Research shows foreign objects are most commonly left behind in the patients’ pelvis, abdomen, and the area behind the abdominal cavity called the retroperitoneum. The most common objects left behind include the following: 

  • Clamps
  • Drain tips
  • Electrodes
  • Gauze
  • Gloves
  • Forceps 
  • Needles
  • Retractors
  • Scalpels 
  • Scopes
  • Sponges
  • Surgical masks 
  • Towels
  • Tubes 
  • Tweezers

Ultimately, these grievous medical mistakes come down to one study calls: A lack of organization and communication between surgical staff during the process.

What Is a Never Event?

In a health care context, a so-called never event is a medical mistake that never should have happened. It is much more than a minor oversight. A never event refers to a serious case of negligence that causes serious harm or death for the patient. Over 70 percent of never events that are reported are fatal to the patient. 

The National Quality Forum is a Washington DC-based non-profit organization that tracks medical errors. They created a list of “particularly shocking” medical errors they consider to be never events or Serious Reportable Events. 

The list is extensive, but in the surgical or invasive category, they include surgery performed on the wrong site, surgery on the wrong patient, and URFO after surgery or other invasive procedure. 

Complications of a Foreign Object in the Body after Surgery

Compared with operating on the wrong person or the wrong body part, an RSB may seem relatively minor as medical errors go. However, depending on the location and the object involved, a foreign object that remains in the body after surgery can cause serious and potentially life-threatening health issues. 

Complications when instruments or other foreign bodies are left behind include: 

  • Abscesses
  • Adhesions
  • Ileus; improper bowel function
  • Gastrointestinal fistula
  • Incision that does not heal properly
  • Infections 
  • Inflammation 
  • Internal bleeding
  • Intestinal perforations
  • Obstructions 
  • Sepsis 
  • Severe pain 

The treatment and prognosis for a retained surgical item depend on many factors, including where the item is in the body, the size and material of the object, and the patient’s symptoms. 

If the retained medical object is located and diagnosed within one to two weeks, a subsequent operation to retrieve the item is likely to be successful. However, any operation introduces the risk of infection and other complications, making this scenario less than ideal. 

Unfortunately, many patients with foreign objects left in the body do not experience symptoms for months or even years. By then, the item may have moved or migrated inside the body, causing more serious health problems. Surgery to retrieve the item and repair structural issues is riskier and more complex. 

Is It Too Late to Sue if My Surgery Took Place Several Years Ago?

Malpractice cases are civil cases, which means they are subject to a statute of limitations. In most states, individuals have a few years after the malpractice event to bring a claim. 

That may seem problematic if your doctor failed to remove a surgical tool, but you discovered this only after the item migrated and caused a serious obstruction. That is why Maryland and other states allow victims of malpractice to file within five years of the initial injury or within three years of the discovery of the injury, whichever comes first. 

Supposed you are the patient, and you go to the emergency room with intense pain, nausea, and other symptoms. After a physical examination and a CT scan or X-ray, the provider determines a foreign object is causing your symptoms, and that object is from a previous medical procedure. 

Your time limit to file a medical malpractice claim begins when you first become aware that your surgical team was negligent. This is why medical records and other documentation are so important for these types of cases. When in doubt, ask your medical malpractice lawyer if a document pertains to your case. Save everything and make copies for you and your legal team.

Elements of a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you suffered health problems from a foreign surgical instrument left in your body or any type of medical negligence, you may have grounds to bring a malpractice claim. 

Every successful malpractice claim must prove certain legal elements: 

Duty. Duty refers to the medical professional’s obligation, or duty, to provide the standard of care that is appropriate for the circumstances. It is presumed that any provider with similar experience and training would provide the same standard of care. 

Breach of duty. When a provider breaches that duty of care, either accidentally or purposely, they can be held responsible for the damages that occur. Examples of breach of duty include prescribing the wrong medication, misreading laboratory results, and leaving a foreign object in the patient.

Cause. When it comes to medicine, patients can have setbacks or complications after surgery. However, they are not always caused by a doctor or nurse’s mistake. It must be shown the provider’s negligence directly caused the patient harm.

Damages. A medical mistake such as the wrong medication or ordering the wrong type of test does not rise to the level of malpractice if no one gets hurt. Harm must occur. Damages in a malpractice claim might be pain, disability, lost income if the patient can no longer work, loss of enjoyment of life, and even death. 

If you were injured by a medical mistake, time is not on your side. Contact a seasoned lawyer who focuses their practice on medical malpractice claims for guidance on your situation. Although a settlement cannot turn back time, it can help alleviate the financial burden of medical bills, medication, and rehabilitation after surgery. 

Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Provide Experienced Legal Guidance for Clients 

Doctors are human, and they make mistakes. If you have sustained injury from the actions of a health care professional, reach out to the Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. Our experienced legal team will review your case to determine if a medical mistake rises to the level of negligence under the law. We are committed to obtaining justice for injured patients across Maryland. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

We have offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, allowing us to represent clients in Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.