Woman Files Surgical Error Lawsuit After Forgotten Sponge During Hysterectomy June 24, 2014.

In 2007, a 56-year-old woman underwent a hysterectomy and bladder support surgery. When her husband rushed her back to the hospital three days later with pain, doctors took an X-ray, and then sent her home with a constipation diagnosis.

A year later, co-workers called an ambulance when she began suffering symptoms such as blurred vision, increased perspiration, nausea, and faintness. Again, the hospital said she had "a gastrointestinal issue of some sort" and told her to lay off the spicy food.

Four years after her hysterectomy, she began bleeding. While removing her ovaries for a suspected cyst, her gynecologist discovered a mass.

"The surgeon came back and told my husband that it was not a mass inside my small intestine. It was a surgical sponge that was left in, and it had become completely encased with scar tissue," she told CBS News. "[T]hey had to remove a large amount of my intestine."

As CBS reported June 17, 2014, she has filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctors, the radiologist, and the hospital. Her attorney told reporters that "repetitive errors" were made, including the failure to count surgical instruments at the conclusion of the operation, which is standard operating procedure, and overlooking the sponge in her 2007 X-ray.

In 2012, the hospital was fined $25,000 for that surgical sponge discovery. It was later billed $50,000 for leaving an 8-inch surgical clamp inside another patient. This year, Consumer Reports named the facility the safest in its county.

Retained Sponge Statistics

As UNC School of Medicine study "No Sponge Left Behind" stated in 2010, estimates have ranged from sponges being retained in 1 in 1,000 surgeries to 1 in 18,000.

"There’s no federal reporting requirement when hospitals leave sponges or other items in patients," USA Today said in March 2013, "but research studies and government data suggest it happens between 4,500 and 6,000 times a year. That’s up to twice government estimates, which run closer to 3,000 cases, and sponges account for more than two-thirds of all incidents."

Five months later, Becker’s Hospital Review said the number may be closer to 1 in 6,975 operations, per a four-year Mayo Clinic study.

How Do Surgeons Forget to Remove a Sponge?

"Sponges used to absorb fluids and improve access to organs during surgical procedures are much different than household sponges," said UNC researchers. "Surgical sponges are mostly made of cotton, and come in sizes of 12-by-12 inches or as small as 4-by-4 inches. These sponges can become difficult to see during an operation because they can mold into different shapes and take on the same color of the fluids being absorbed." They can also migrate and be difficult to detect through rubber gloves.

Typically, hospitals rely on a counting system to keep tabs on how many sponges are used during a surgery and how many come back out of the patient. Unfortunately, this leaves the patient at risk of human fallibility. According to USA Today, one hospital system "had a better-than-average success rate" of one or two sponges being sewn up inside patients each year out of 34,000 surgeries. Then that number skyrocketed to about one instance per month.

"It was very upsetting — after each case, we’d do a review, trying to figure out, my God, how is this happening," the director of operations and perioperative services said. "We did education, we changed to a different (counting) system, we tried having another person in the room doing counts. We were looking everywhere for solutions."

Since implementing a sponge-tracking system in which each sponge is embedded with a radio-frequency tag that will alert a nurse when the patient is wanded after surgery, the hospital system hasn’t left a sponge inside a patient in five years. The problem is, fewer than 15 percent of hospitals use such a system, according to a USA Today survey of the companies that make them.

If a retained sponge caused injury, infection, or death, attorney Chris Mellino welcomes you to contact our Cleveland office with any questions you may have about filing a claim before Ohio’s statute of limitations expires. You may also download Chris’ free, easy-to-read guide to filing a medical malpractice claim, read testimonials from previous clients, or learn about prior case results.