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Signs of a Retained Foreign Body After Surgery

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Group of surgeons in masks performing operation. Concept of retained foreign body during surgery

Retained surgical bodies, or RSB, are any foreign bodies or instruments left inside a patient after an operation is executed. Signs of a retained foreign body after surgery may not appear immediately, so it is important for the patient to be aware of what is normal post-surgery. 

Group of surgeons in masks performing operation. Concept of retained foreign body during surgery

RSB is categorized as one of the most devastating types of medical negligence. Medical professionals have a responsibility toward their patients to guarantee that they have provided standard care and no negligence is present during treatment. This standard of care extends to surgical procedures.

It is of the utmost importance that surgeons and any other healthcare professional take the steps necessary to prevent any complications from surgery. Clear communication should be used during the entirety of the procedure by any healthcare professional in the operating room. Every item used during the surgical procedure should be a part of a system in place for clearly counting all tools. In most cases, manually counting all sponges and other operation instruments before the end of the surgical procedure is a sure way to avoid negligence.

Is There a Statute of Limitations for Medical Malpractice Claims?

Medical malpractice lawsuits in Illinois have a timeline that often starts on the date the medical negligence was performed. Retained surgical instrument claims may have different deadlines to follow, as the error may not be apparent right after the surgery. An extended time may surpass before a patient realizes that a surgeon left a foreign object inside his or her body. A patient may only be aware once he or she starts experiencing pain and suffering and other complications. 

State medical malpractice laws allow a patient to file a claim up to two years from the date of discovering a surgical error. A claim may also be filed starting two years from the date the patient should have reasonably discovered any negligence. However, this discovery rule is capped at four years from the date of surgery.

The relationship between a medical professional and a patient is an important one built on trust. When a professional’s negligence causes a patient to suffer, a medical malpractice lawsuit is a patient’s best option to seek financial recovery. Victims can recover compensation for their injuries and financial losses. A victim’s family may seek compensation in cases of medical errors that lead to death.  

The Most Common Retained Surgical Instruments

Many kinds of documented surgical mistakes should never happen, such as performing the wrong procedure or leaving foreign materials inside a body. Oftentimes, patients may not experience any signs or symptoms for a substantial amount of time. This period can range from months to years after the surgery, and because of the time that has passed, an invasive treatment will be needed to extract the retained device. This can leave patients with debilitating pain and may cause life-long impacts on their quality of life. 

Surgical instruments that are most likely to be left inside a patient’s body during surgical procedures include clamps, needles, scissors, scalpels, scopes, sponges, surgical masks, towels, and tubes. Bowel perforation and punctured organs can result from a needle or pair of scissors being left inside a patient during surgery. Although those objects are sharp and solid, it does not mean that they always cause the most significant damage. 

The danger is not just presented by the shape or rigidity of the surgical instrument. Gauze and sponges are more likely to be retained inside a patient than the sharp tools used during the surgical procedure. Gauze and sponges are soft and fluffy but can easily cause a deadly infection if left inside the body, which is one of the greatest risks attributed to retained foreign bodies.

Common Signs of Retained Foreign Bodies After Surgery

Retained surgical bodies will display themselves based on their location and type of material. RSBs have been found inside noses, spines, uteri, retroperitoneal spaces, tracheobronchial trees, and most commonly inside abdominal cavities. When a foreign object is left inside an abdominal cavity, it can cause substantial pain and may produce an abdominal tumor that may raise suspicions regarding malignant masses. Other symptoms or side effects include intra-abdominal abscess, bleeding, gastrointestinal fistula, intestinal perforation, and obstructive ileus. In some cases, the foreign body or the infection it is responsible for can migrate within the body cavity. 

It is possible for complications to manifest as acute reactions. Acute reactions include abscesses, infections, or inflammatory responses within days or weeks after the surgical operation. Surgical tools can also appear as an aseptic inflammation or exudative infections. These patients often complain of pain and discomfort for months or years after their operation. All complications due to RSB require medical treatment, but acute reactions require treatment immediately to avoid any further complications. 

It is not abnormal for patients to experience varying levels of pain and discomfort post-surgery. A patient’s surgeon should have prepared the patient to understand what is expected during his or her recovery process. Patients should be aware of any warning signs or symptoms of serious postoperative complications regarding unintended retention of foreign objects (URFO). Patients experiencing any of the following symptoms post-surgery should contact a healthcare professional immediately. 

Symptoms of retained foreign objects can include:

  • Black, bloody, or tar-like bowel movements
  • Any constipation or difficulty in urination which may imply a blockage
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Difficulty breathing, eating, or swallowing
  • Drainage/steaks coming from or near the site of the incision
  • Any constant or intermittent severe pains, especially in the head or legs, which may indicate a blood clot

Symptoms of infections may start with discoloration, soreness or tenderness, swelling, fever, or pus in the area of operation. Some incisions may even begin to come apart or tear.

Retained surgical instruments will need to be removed with a follow-up procedure to begin remedying the problem and its symptoms. There are multiple consequences of having retained instruments within a patient, and not all of them appear right after surgery. The time frame in which these complications become apparent can start immediately, months, or even years after a surgical operation has taken place.

How Often Do Surgeons Forget Objects Inside of Patients?

The unintended retention of foreign objects happens less than many other surgical errors, but frequently enough that it is still a major cause for concern. The estimated number of surgical patients who become victims of URFO is one out of every 5,500 in the United States. The most common surgical tool that is unintentionally left inside victims is surgical sponges. Surgical sponges account for an estimated 68% of reported URFO cases. Other surgical tools that may be retained are catheters, needles, retractors, towels, and wires. 

A retained foreign body is a huge burden for victims and can be expensive to correct. Victims of retained foreign bodies can suffer in numerous ways due to the physical and mental implications of the accident. The retention of foreign objects strains a victim’s physical health, and the victims may also experience new medical complications from the corrective surgery needed. 

RFB also places a large amount of stress on the victim’s mental well-being. Many URFO victims develop and suffer from anxiety, depression, or phobias. Many victims find themselves in other life-changing situations due to their physical and mental impairments, such as failed careers and marriages.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit for a Retained Foreign Body

Patients should be aware of the many variables before, during, and post-surgery. Patients who realize a medical professional has left a surgical instrument inside their body post-surgery should begin filing a medical malpractice lawsuit immediately. Any family members of patients who lost their lives due to medical negligence should begin filing a wrongful death claim. Suing any hospital or medical facility can be a challenging and complex process. The process will include obtaining affidavits, medical records, reports, and many other important pieces of information to help support the claim. 

Families of deceased victims may be left wondering how to sue a hospital for wrongful death. To make a wrongful death claim successful, families will need to prove that the medical facility’s negligence or intent to harm was the cause of the victim’s death. 

Medical malpractice claims can be hard to prove because they require a considerable amount of evidence and the assistance of an independent medical expert. Malpractice victims are already suffering enough, and trying to prove a doctor failed to provide a reasonable standard of care can add significant emotional and mental stress. These tasks are not easy, but medical malpractice lawyers are prepared to handle the extra stress victims need to avoid during their recovery process. A medical malpractice lawyer will likely have direct associations with a medical expert who can assist in demonstrating a defendant’s incompetence to further prove the value of a victim’s claim. Medical malpractice attorneys can help victims compile all necessary evidence to sue a doctor for medical malpractice.

About the Author

Kurt D. Lloyd is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice and other catastrophic injury cases. He lives in Chicago and represents injured clients throughout Illinois. He is also the founder of Lloyd Miller Law, Ltd.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Kurt D. Lloyd is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice and other catastrophic injury cases. He lives in Chicago and represents injured clients throughout Illinois. He is also the founder of Lloyd Miller Law, Ltd.

Years of Experience: Over 35 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar Admissions: Illinois State Bar