What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly

12:11 PM, Mar 8, 2013   |    comments
These high-tech sponges are equipped with inventory bar codes. Alternatively, radio-frequency tracking devices, such as those lying atop the sponges, can be embedded. (Photo courtesy USA Today)
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Peter Eisler
USA Today

Erica Parks knew something wasn't right in her belly when she left the Alabama hospital that performed her cesarean section in the spring of 2010.

Over the next month, her stomach grew so swollen that she looked pregnant again. By the sixth week, her bowels had shut down entirely. Parks, an Air Force major, staggered in to see her doctor, who sent her immediately to the emergency room.

X-rays showed that a surgical sponge the size of a washcloth had been left in Parks' abdomen. After a six-hour emergency surgery to untangle the infected mass from her intestine, she needed nearly three weeks of hospitalization.

Parks, now 40, had suffered from what is known officially as a "retained surgical item" - a sponge or instrument left in a patient's body. Such mistakes are considered so egregious and so preventable that they're referred to in the medical world as "never events." They simply are not supposed to happen.

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But they do, about a dozen times a day.

Thousands of patients a year leave the nation's operating rooms with surgical items in their bodies. And despite occasional tales of forceps, clamps and other hardware showing up in post-operative X-rays, those items are almost never the problem. Most often, it's the gauzy, cotton sponges that doctors use throughout operations to soak up blood and other fluids, a USA TODAY examination shows.

Yet thousands of hospitals and surgical centers have failed to adopt readily available technologies that all but eliminate the risk of leaving sponges in patients.

The consequences are enormous. Many patients carrying surgical sponges suffer for months or years before anyone determines the cause of the searing pain, digestive dysfunction and other typical ills. Often, by the time the error is discovered, infection has set in.

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