Hidden Agony: When the surgeon leaves something inside you

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Christine Tressel via WLS logo
Friday, May 13, 2016
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There is troubling new information about the hidden agony caused by foreign objects left behind by doctors and nurses.

Medical mistakes are now estimated to be the third leading cause of death in the United States.

There is troubling new information about the hidden agony caused by foreign objects left behind by doctors and nurses and a suburban mother who wants to avoid becoming part of a growing statistic: an average of 700 people die each day in the U.S. from medical mess ups.

"I had surgery in 2007," Michelle Eberwein said. "They told me it would be a rough first year but then I should be fine."

Eberwein thought she was doing OK after back surgery in 2007, but then began experiencing a mysterious pain on her left side.

"I kept going to the ER doing CT scans and they are like, 'Oh, kidney stones. Oh, there's nothing there. Oh, you have IBS. Oh, it's... we just don't know,'" she said.

Year after year, the suburban mother said the pain would crop up and she'd head to the ER. She claims no cause was ever given until September 2015, about nine years since her surgery, when an emergency room doctor discovered what could be the cause of her hidden agony.

"He goes, 'Well, there's something in there.' I said, 'What do you mean something?' He goes, 'a surgical tool,'" Eberwein says.

The mystery object is described as possible retained swabs in the left side of her abdomen, near a major artery.

Since 2008, Eberwein's medical reports reveal that the experts knew something was inside her that shouldn't have been. In radiology lingo, an "irregular high density material."

"But no one ever told me and I just don't understand why," she said.

Eberwine may not be the only one in the dark. In Illinois these sometimes deadly, serious mistakes are supposed to be reported to the state, but the I-Team has learned that hasn't been happening.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, "the legislative budget impasse has stalled our ability to sign a contract and pay a vendor to create an electronic reporting system."

At this time, hospitals are not reporting these events.

The joint commission which accredits hospitals does keep track of items left inside surgical patients, telling the I-Team it happens roughly 2,000 to 4,000 times each year in the United States.

But reporting to the commission and other agencies is voluntary, so the numbers are estimates.

Dr. Ronald Wyatt heads safety investigations.

"There is, we believe, significant under reporting of all safety events," said Dr. Wyatt.

Wyatt said even after a 2013 report calling for better counting procedures and other safeguards. Foreign object cases are still a significant problem as of 2015. The commission is working to change the culture.

"We have had care teams when we go through a root cause analysis say to us, 'I knew something was left behind but I couldn't say so,'" Wyatt said.

As for legal recourse, Eberwein appears to be out of luck, because she didn't learn of the object in time.

"In Illinois, doctors and hospitals lobbied for a deadline, a drop dead deadline after which they cannot be sued even if their patients never are aware, never become aware of the injury until after that," said medical malpractice attorney Bill Cirignani.

In Illinois that deadline is four years.

"It doesn't matter that people saw it and didn't tell her, doesn't matter that she had pain and asked about it and no one uncovered it. After four years she is out," Cirignani said.

Eberwein said the object deep in her abdomen is now covered with scar tissue and needs to come out, but she has been told the surgery could be risky and costly.

"I am angry, so angry that I can't hold the surgeon accountable for what happened. I just... I feel very wronged," she said.

Eberwein regrets not immediately asking for the detailed reports following her ER visits. Now she wants to change the Illinois laws.

Some states have exemptions in their statute of limitations which allow patients with unintentionally retained objects to file claims after the deadline.

To report a patient safety event or concern about a health care organization, please visit www.jointcommission.org. Concerns may be submitted using our online form or via email, fax or mail.

LINK: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)