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6 Cases of Missing Limbs and Other Surgery Nightmares

What are surgical mistakes? Though rare, medical mishaps happen. The true stories of these astonishing surgical errors will shock you.

By Allison Futterman
Nov 28, 2023 7:00 PM
doctor looking distressed at clipboard after a surgical mistake
(Credit:Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock)


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Thousands of surgical mistakes are made each year, leading to horrific outcomes, including death.

When it comes to our health and well-being, many of us turn to medical professionals for the best treatments and advice. While health professionals have the medical know-how, they are still human. And being human means that mistakes can happen. Some mistakes aren’t just misdiagnoses; some can be life-altering errors. Though they are rare, medical mistakes such as surgical errors have occurred.  

What are Surgical Errors?

Surgical mistakes occur when a medical professional performs surgery on the wrong limb or the wrong side of the body. In some cases, surgeons conduct surgery on the wrong patient or perform unnecessary surgery. In other situations, surgeons have cut an organ by mistake or left instruments or other objects inside a patient. Some have even failed to address complications. 

There are more than 4,000 preventable surgical errors each year. Here are some cases where these errors led to devastating results.

1. Wrong Testicle Removed

In 2006, Benjamin Houghton sought treatment at a VA Hospital for a testicle that was atrophied and painful. His doctor suspected a recurrence of testicular cancer and scheduled surgery to remove his left testicle. The surgeon mistakenly removed the right testicle instead. An incorrect consent form and the failure to put a mark on the correct body part led to the mistake.

The Houghtons sued the Veteran’s Administration for associated health issues arising from his situation. These included sexual dysfunction, depression, and osteoporosis. Houghton and his wife received a settlement of $200,000.

2. Incompatible Blood Donor Type

In 2003, 17-year-old Jesica Santillan’s lungs and heart were in a weakened state due to the effects of cardiomyopathy. She received a heart and double lung transplant from Duke University Medical Center. Incredibly, nobody along the way cross-checked her blood type with that of the donor. By the time the error was realized, surgery was concluding.

Santillan’s body rejected the organs. Surgeons did a second heart/lung transplant with correctly matched organs, but she suffered irreversible, severe brain damage — and died two days later after being taken off life support. A confidential settlement was reached in 2004.

Read More: Scientists Find Success in Creating Lab-Grown Blood

3. Unnecessary Mastectomy

In 2015, Eduvigis Rodriguez had a breast lump biopsied. The pathologist incorrectly determined that the sample was cancerous. Rodriguez went to a different hospital to have a mastectomy of her breast, but they never reviewed the biopsy slides, as was the protocol. A post-surgical review of the removed tissue showed no cancer cells but instead a benign condition. A review of the original biopsy also proved to have no cancerous cells.

In a lawsuit she filed, Rodriguez claimed she suffered from blood clots, surgical hernia, and pulmonary embolism as a result of the medical mistakes. She sued the hospital for medical expenses and pain and suffering.

4. Unnecessary Brain Surgery

In 2012, Bimla Nayyar needed surgery to fix her dislocated jaw. However, surgeons instead performed a craniotomy. This resulted from another patient’s records/scans being placed in Nayyar’s file. During surgery, they realized she didn’t have bleeding on the brain, as they would have expected in a patient needing a craniotomy.

After surgery, Nayyar developed complications and died — after being taken off life support. A jury awarded her family $20 million, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. The Court of Appeals found that her lawyers should have argued medical malpractice, not negligence.  

Read More: What Happens to Your Brain When You’re Under Anesthesia?

5. Avoidable Amputation

In 2010, doctors thought Peter Sfameni might have lymphoma. After being instructed to stop taking blood thinners in preparation for a colonoscopy, doctors kept him off blood thinners to do a lymph node biopsy. They mistakenly performed a bone marrow biopsy instead. Although he was to resume blood thinners, he couldn’t because he still needed to have the lymph node biopsy.

Sfameni developed life-threatening blood clots in his legs and lungs. The clots led to gangrene in his right leg, and it had to be amputated. In 2017, a jury trial led to a verdict of $61.6 million for Sfameni.

6. Wrong Foot Amputated

In 1995, Willie King started to have diabetes in his right leg, and doctors scheduled surgery to amputate it below the knee. Instead, surgeons removed his left leg. Someone listed the wrong leg on the board in the operating room, the surgery schedule, and the computer system. By the time the surgeon entered the operating room, the wrong leg had already been prepped.

The surgeon tried to defend himself by saying that both legs were diseased and the other leg would need amputation anyway. King filed a lawsuit against the hospital and surgeon — which was eventually settled for $1.15 million. He went on to have his diseased leg removed at a different hospital.

Read More: The Upsetting World of Primitive Brain Surgery

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