Sponges Can Be Left Inside Body Following Surgery; Doctors Look to Nurses to Keep Track

When we undergo surgery, we cannot think, breathe, make decisions and advocate for ourselves. We depend on the experts — doctors and nurses — who oversee the surgery to do what’s best for us.

Trouble is, that does not always happen. Take the case of Sophia Savage. One night she felt a crushing pain in her abdomen, and she started vomiting. She went to a local emergency room and was admitted to a hospital. Her doctor discovered a medical sponge left over from the surgery when she had a hysterectomy. And how long had the sponge been in her body? Four years.

She sued the hospital in which the hysterectomy had taken place, and in 2009 she won $2.5 million in damages. But the award has been appealed. Meanwhile, she suffers from severe bowel problems and has been unable to work. She reports bouts of from anxiety and depression.

Ms. Savage is not alone. Every year, an estimated 4,000 cases of “retained surgical items,” as they are known in the medical world, are reported in the United States. These are items left in the patient’s body after surgery. Most are sponges used to soak up blood. Doctors say they might stuff dozens of them inside a patient to control bleeding during an operation.

Many observers say surgical teams rely on an old-fashioned method to avoid leaving sponges in patients. In most operating rooms, a nurse keeps count of the sponges in any operation. But because people are human — yes, even surgeons — mistakes are made and left inside the patient.

Surgeons say a cotton sponge is easy to miss, especially inside large cavities. Abdominal operations are most frequently associated with retained sponges, and surgeons are more likely to leave items in overweight patients, they say.

Hospitals now have a more technological approach to track and count sponges: the use of radio-frequency tags. In a study published in the October issue of The Journal of the American College of Surgeons, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at 2,285 cases in which sponges were tracked using a system called RF Assure Detection. Every sponge contained a tiny radio-frequency tag, about the size of a grain of rice. At the end of an operation, a detector alerts the surgical team if any sponges remain inside the patient. In the study, the system helped recover 23 forgotten sponges from almost 3,000 patients in 11 months.

Created by a thoracic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, the RF Assure system adds about $10 to the cost of a procedure, roughly the cost of a single suture used in surgery.

The study was reported in The New York Times.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling surgical lawsuits for over 36 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Oak Park, Evergreen Park, Des Plaines, and Bolingbrook, Ill.

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