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10 Most Famous Medical Mistakes of All Time

By Leslie

Medical mistakes happen every day. In fact, experts believe that about 200,000 people die every year in the United States from preventable medical mistakes. Many patients are accidentally injured and even killed at the hands of their doctors, who’ve failed to double check their medical records and make sure everything is correct before going forth with procedures. We sometimes forget that doctors and nurses are humans who make mistakes from time to time, but when human lives are at stake, there should be no room for error. Here are the 10 most famous medical mistakes of all time:

  1. Surgery on Wrong Side of Head: It may be hard to wrap your brain around this one, but neurosurgeons at Rhode Island Hospital made not one, but three serious medical mistakes when they performed surgeries on the wrong side of three different patients’ heads in 2007. Two of the mistakes were caught early enough to close the initial holes and treat the correct side, but the other surgery left an 86-year-old man dead three weeks after the procedure. The surgeon’s license was suspended for a mere two months and was back to work shortly after.
  2. Wrong Heart and Lung Transplant: One of the most tragic medical mistakes occurred in 2003, when surgeons at Duke University Hospital transplanted organs with the wrong blood type into 17-year-old Jesica Santillan. After receiving the wrong heart and lungs, her body began to shut down and she suffered severe brain damage. Dr. James Jaggers tried to correct the mistake with a second transplant with the correct blood type, but she died soon after. Santillan was a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States to receive treatment for her life-threatening heart condition. Dr. Jaggers accepted responsibility for the tragic mistake, and Duke Hospital has now implemented a double-checking system for all transplantations.
  3. Babies Given Accidental Overdose: Actor Dennis Quaid and his wife Kimberly Buffington received massive media attention not just because their twins were born, but because they nearly died after nurses gave the newborns a lethal dose of heparin to flush their IV catheters and prevent clotting. The babies were undergoing treatment for a staph infection, and instead of giving them the 10 units of heparin recommended for babies, the nurses accidentally gave them an adult dose of 10,000 units. They were bleeding internally and externally and the heparin severely thinned their blood. After 41 hours, their blood began clotting normally and they fully recovered. The mistake stemmed from two main problems: the medications are nearly identical looking and the pharmacy technician accidentally stocked the cabinet with the wrong vials of medicine.
  4. Removed Wrong Testicle: Benjamin Houghton, an Air Force veteran, underwent medical treatment to have his left testicle removed because it was atrophied and may have contained cancer cells. But surgeons at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center mistakenly removed the right, healthy testicle instead. The medical mistake was traced back to Houghton’s medical records, in which there was an error on the consent form and the surgeon failed to mark the correct surgical site before operating. Houghton and his wife sued the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center for $200,000 in future care needs and unspecified damages.
  5. Removed Wrong Leg: One of the most publicized and shocking surgical mistakes of the 20th century happened to 52-year-old Willie King, who underwent an amputation surgery in 1995 to remove a diseased leg, but the surgeon removed the wrong one. Dr. Rolando R. Sanchez was the surgeon who was responsible for King’s healthy leg. According to the case, there were a series of mistakes that led to the wrong leg being removed. The wrong leg was listed in a number of key places, such as the blackboard in the operating room, the University Community Hospital’s computer system and the operating room schedule. The wrong leg was already sterilized and prepped for surgery before Sanchez came into the operating room. Sanchez claimed that both legs were unhealthy and each would probably have to be removed at some point. However, his medical mistake still cost him $10,000 in fines, six-month suspension of his medical license and a payment of $250,000 to King.
  6. Fertility Clinic Used Wrong Sperm: Thomas and Nancy Andrews sued New York Medical Services for Reproductive Medicine for negligence and medical malpractice because the clinic accidentally inseminated her eggs with another man’s sperm during an in vitro fertilization procedure. When their baby Jessica was born on Oct. 19, 2004, they noticed that her skin was drastically darker than either of the parents. After three DNA tests, laboratory results confirmed that Thomas Andrews was in fact not Jessica’s biological father. The couple continued with the lawsuit and sought unspecified damages against the owner of the clinic and the embryologist who processed the egg and sperm for insemination.
  7. Removed Kidney Instead of Gallbladder: An 84-year-old woman sought medical treatment at the Milford Regional Medical Center in Massachusetts to have her gallbladder removed, but the surgeon accidentally removed her right kidney instead. The surgeon, Dr. Patrick M. McEnaney, was responsible for removing the wrong organ during the June 2006 operation. His plan was to remove the gallbladder with a laparoscope, but because of organ inflammation and bleeding, he switched to open surgery. McEnaney misread the results of a medical test and continued to operate in the wrong area. The patient did not face any further complications from the botched surgery, and her gallbladder actually improved and didn’t have to be removed. However, the surgeon is completing a five-year probation agreement created by a state medical board. He is not allowed to perform surgery without another surgeon present and he must have his practice monitored by another physician.
  8. Surgical Tools Left in Patients: Donald Church underwent surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle to have a tumor in his abdomen removed, but doctors forgot to remove a 13-inch retractor in his abdomen after the surgery. This surgical mistake was discovered shortly after the procedure and removed from Church’s body without causing any further complications. Church was paid $97,000 in damages and the UW hospital took full responsibility for the mistake. This error may be rare for most hospitals, but this was the fifth incident in the last five years where UW surgeons have left surgical instruments in patients. Since the 2000 incident, the UW has implemented various surgical procedures to prevent these kinds of surgical mistakes and keep track of their equipment.
  9. Patient Wide Awake During Surgery: Sherman Sizemore underwent exploratory surgery at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley, W.Va., to determine the cause of his abdominal pain, but was subjected to much more pain than he could have ever imagined when his anesthesiologist failed to give him general anesthetics until 16 minutes after surgeons first cut into his abdomen. Sizemore could feel the pain, but was unable to move or communicate with surgeons. Following the surgery, Sizemore was haunted by the experience of anesthetic awareness, which affects an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 patients every year, and his tormented memories drove him to commit suicide just two weeks later. Sizemore’s family sued Raleigh Anesthesia Associates for failing to properly anesthetize him, which they believe drove their father to kill himself.
  10. Unneeded Double Mastectomy: Darrie Eason, 35, underwent a double mastectomy as directed by two doctors, only to find out that she didn’t have breast cancer at all. The mistaken diagnosis stemmed from a lab mix-up, in which a technician mislabeled tissue specimens and the doctor signed off on the diagnosis. Eason even sought a second opinion, but the doctor reiterated her original cancer diagnosis and urged her to have both breasts removed. The New York State Department of Health conducted an investigation to see if the CBLPath medical laboratory met all safety measures and proper patient care, and found no problems. But Eason is not moving on without a fight. Even though the doctor who signed off on her diagnosis no longer works at the lab, Eason still filed a lawsuit against the facility and sought an undisclosed amount in her 2007 case.

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