The Five Worst Health Blunders in History

Surgical retractor Orem 2 - By Olek Remesz (wiki-pl: Orem, commons: Orem) (Own work)

If you thought hospital was one of the safest places you could be, think again. Cast your mind back and you will surely have read about at least one unbelievable medical mistake, which actually happened to an unfortunate patient. While you might think that these are isolated incidents, this isn’t so; for example each year in the United States there are around 1,500 cases of surgical instruments being left inside patients after an operation. Here we look at five of the biggest medical blunders of all time.

An unwanted souvenir

The University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle was responsible for giving Donald Church a souvenir he hadn’t bargained on when he attended for surgery in 2000. He was admitted for the removal of a tumor from his abdomen, which was successfully taken out, but a 13 inch metal retractor was left in its place. The doctors soon realized what had happened and swiftly removed the device without any lasting harm. However, Mr Church received $97,000 in compensation from the hospital, which had been host to four similar incidents in the preceding three years.

Three times unlucky

It’s bad enough when a medical mistake happens once, but when the same error occurs three times within one year at the same hospital, questions have to be asked. However, this is exactly what happened at Rhode Island Hospital when three patients suffered the misfortune of having the wrong side of their head operated on during brain surgery. Although in two of the cases the patients survived, in the third an 86 year old died three weeks after his operation. The last of the botched operations took place in November 2007, where an 82 year old lady received surgery to stem bleeding between her brain and skull. While a CT scan clearly showed bleeding in her left hemisphere, the surgeon began to drill through the right side of her skull. Quickly realizing what had happened, the surgeon closed up the first hole and then proceeded to drill in the correct place, completing the rest of the procedure without event. The hospital was resultantly fined $50,000 for its medical negligence in all three cases.

Fertility clinic mix up

When Nancy Andrews and her husband received IVF treatment at New York Medical Services for Reproductive Medicine, they expected a new member of their family, but all did not quite go to plan during the procedure. Although Andrews gave birth to a healthy baby girl in 2004, her skin tone and characteristics were unexpected given her parents’ background. Their suspicions were confirmed by DNA testing; Mr Andrews was not her father and another man’s sperm must have accidentally been used to inseminate his wife’s eggs. Although the couple brought their daughter up as their own, a malpractice suit was filed against the clinic’s owner and the embryologist who inadvertently mixed up the samples.

A very expensive error

When Benjamin Houghton, an Air Force veteran, experienced pain and shrinkage of his left testicle, his concerns regarding a potential cancer led to him seeking surgery for its removal at West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. However, two unfortunate events – a mistake on the consent form and failure of medical staff to mark the correct testicle for removal - led to his healthy right testicle being removed instead. Understandably annoyed about the surgical blunder in 2007, Houghton sought $200,000 from the hospital in damages and to cover medical costs.

A case of mistaken identity

Could an operation really be carried out on the wrong patient? Well, this actually happened to a 67 year old lady who attended hospital for cerebral angiography. After the procedure, instead of returning to the same ward, she was transferred to another floor. Although she was meant to be going home the next day, the day of her scheduled discharge she was taken to theatre for open heart surgery. It wasn’t until an hour through the operation that surgeons realized their error, but this was only after a phone call from another department alerting to their attention that they had the wrong patient on the operating table. By this time she had already endured an incision in her groin and a puncture to an artery, to allow a tube to be inserted and passed towards her heart; this is a risky procedure, carrying a chance of bleeding, infection, heart attack or stroke. For both her sake and that of the surgeons, she was returned to the ward in a stable condition.