When Glenford Turner had a dizzy spell in March of last year, he went to the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven, Conn., to see what was wrong. Doctors ordered an MRI of the 61-year old Army veteran’s head. But the real answer, it turned out, was in his gut.
According to a federal lawsuit he filed last week in U.S. District Court, Turner was halfway through an examination when a wave of severe abdominal pain hit him. The procedure was stopped, and doctors took a closer look.
An X-ray image of his midsection showed, to quote the lawsuit, “an abandoned surgical instrument in plaintiff’s body.”
In other words, a scalpel — the same scalpel, Turner and his attorney allege, that was used in prostate surgery he underwent at the same hospital four years earlier.
Turner’s lawsuit accuses the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs of negligence and seeks unspecified compensatory damages for the allegedly botched operation.
The case drew the attention of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said he was appalled by the “egregious medical malpractice case.”
“While the court determines liability, I have asked for a detailed explanation from VA of this deeply troubling report,” Blumenthal said in a statement Monday. “I am demanding also full accountability so this kind of horrific negligence never happens again. America owes our veterans the world’s best medical care, nothing less.”
A Veterans Affairs spokesperson told the Associated Press that the department doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation.
Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country have long come under fire for unsanitary conditions, staffing shortages and other lapses in patient care. In 2014, Eric K. Shinseki resigned as secretary after the department’s internal watchdog issued a report finding that employees throughout the VA health-care system conspired to hide months-long wait times. Claims of poorly trained staff, asbestos contamination, absentee nurses and other issues were more recently outlined in a September Boston Globe report that described how employee whistleblowers were turning against the department in record numbers.
Across the U.S. health-care system as a whole, “retained surgical bodies” — the scientific term for surgeons leaving things in patients’ bodies — is more common than you might think. The National Institutes of Health estimates that surgeons and their assistants sew their patients up without retrieving their tools about 1,500 times per year. But a 2013 USA Today review of government data, academic studies and legal records found the figure was more likely between 4,500 and 6,000 times per year.
Metal instruments occasionally get left behind, but most of the time, doctors find sponges and wipes, which are more dangerous because they can cause life-threatening infections.
Retained surgical bodies “occur due to a lack of organization and communication between surgical staff during the process,” NIH wrote in a February 2017 report. “During surgery, systems are in place to create a safe environment for the patient while the surgeon works with sponges and instruments; however, they are not impervious to human error.”
In one case highlighted by NIH in 2014, a 36-year-old woman excreted part of a surgical forceps in her stool three years after surgeons removed a cyst in her liver. The remainder of the device was found in her abdomen and removed.
Turner says he received robotic-assisted prostate cancer treatment at VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven, Conn., in August 2013. He complained of long-term abdominal pain afterward, his lawyer said in a statement, that became significantly worse the day of his hospital visit last year.
For reasons not made clear in court papers, doctors didn’t remove the scalpel until a nearly a month after they discovered it. Following the operation, the lawsuit says, VA Connecticut Healthcare officials admitted fault.
“Plaintiff did not discover, and in the exercise of reasonable care could not have discovered, that the abandoned surgical instrument had been left in his body by the defendant’s agents, apparent agents, contractors and/or employees,” the lawsuit reads.
Turner filed an administrative claim over the alleged error in June 2017, but the VA’s lawyers never responded beyond saying they had received the claim, according to the lawsuit.
Turner’s wife, Colleen Jacks-Turner has an allegation in the case as well. As a result of the hospital’s negligence, she says, she lost her husband’s “company, society, services and affections.”
“Mr. Turner served our country proudly for decades,” Turner’s attorney, Joel Faxon, said in a statement. “It is shocking that in return for that service the VA thanked him by deploying a rookie surgical trainee to perform the surgery who showed an incomprehensible level of incompetence by losing the scalpel in Mr. Turner’s abdomen and not bothering to find it.”
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