Surgical sponges and the long-term damage they cause

When surgical sponges are left behind in a patient, they can cause permanent damage, greatly impacting victims’ quality of life.

Our staff at Kent M. Lucaccioni, Ltd, hear multiple stories of people who went into a Chicago area hospital for a surgical procedure and suffered unnecessary complications and permanent injury. One problem in the operating rooms which has been coming to light in the last few years is retained surgical sponges.

Why a sponge is forgotten

In any given operation, dozens of sponges are used to soak up fluids, such as blood, to provide better visibility for the surgeon. By the end of the operating procedure, the sponges look like regular tissue. General Surgery News reported that most hospitals rely on manual counting but often staff miscount and sponges are left inside the cavity. Factors that may influence these errors include distraction by hospital staff, the nature of the work performed and staff that is engaging in multitasking.

One study conducted at an academic medical center showed that 212 surgical sponge counts from 13,322 operations were found incorrect. During a recount process to find the missing sponges, 12 percent of the secondary search still showed the wrong number of sponges.

The sponge's effect on the body

Over time, the sponges become embedded into body tissue, causing a number of issues for the victims that includes the following:

  • Infection or sepsis
  • Bowel obstructions
  • Death
  • Fever
  • Permanent pain and suffering

According to USA Today, one man found out he was the victim of retained sponges a year after having surgery for a digestive issue. By then, the damage caused by the sponges were so great that doctors had no choice but to remove a large portion of his intestine. The experience has left him with hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical costs; permanent pain and suffering; physical, mental and emotional scars; and forced to permanently wear a plastic waste pouch.

Another victim may not be able to have another child after the damage caused by a large sponge left behind from her cesarean section. Her symptoms showed up almost immediately but within a month, she was back in an operating room for an emergency surgery to remove the sponge. She still struggles with digestive issues that may never fully go away.

Technology ignored

It is estimated that every day, events such as these occur around a dozen times. Technology companies have devised a system that could eliminate the risk of retained surgical sponges but most hospitals are ignoring it. They consider the systems too expensive to purchase even though estimates show that per surgery, the additional cost would amount to only around $8 or $12. One hospital which installed the system reports it has not had a single issue with a lost sponge since.

The technology consists of putting a tracking device into each sponge. When the staff is ready to pull out the sponges, they can use a detector wand to find any that may be still inside the body. However, even though hospitals pay anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 for every medical malpractice case they lose, the technology is ignored by over 75 percent of all American hospitals. Victims who are injured by a Chicago hospital's negligence or disregard for their safety may find it helpful to meet with an attorney.