Understanding the facts about retained surgical sponges

Surgical sponges that are left behind in patients can cause serious harm but there are possible solutions.

A California woman struggled with health issues for four years before discovering that the cause was a surgical sponge that had been left inside her. According to CBS Los Angeles, it started when the woman underwent a surgery to have a hysterectomy. The sponge was found when a doctor decided to remove her ovaries to address an issue with bleeding. Citing a series of missed diagnoses when the woman sought previous medical attention, she is suing the hospital for medical malpractice.

What is a surgical sponge?

When surgeons open the human body, there is a great amount of fluid and this makes it hard for them to see what they are doing. Surgical sponges are used to soak up that fluid. According to USA Today, staff generally rely on a manual count, which is done before the surgery and after the procedure is completed but prior to closing the site. However, medical staff may make a mistake in counting, thereby leaving a sponge behind.

How common is the problem?

When a sponge is forgotten inside the body, it becomes a retained foreign object. Researchers believe that sponges and other items are left in patients every year between 4,500 and 6,000 times. The true number of cases, however, remains unknown due to problems with reporting. These incidents are referred to as never events, because they should never happen.

What happens when a sponge is left behind?

Patients who are the victims of retained sponges often experience a wide range of issues that include the following:

  • Infection
  • Nausea
  • Severe pain
  • Gastrointestinal damage

Victims have had to have part of their intestine removed in some cases because the sponge became too embedded in body tissue. This leads to physical scarring and in one man's case, the requirement to wear a pouch to catch his body waste. In addition to the physical pain and suffering, victims often struggle with depression as they must learn to live with an altered lifestyle.

Why are the sponges missed?

Part of the problem with retained sponges lies in the fact that they often resemble body tissue by the time the surgical procedure is finished. This makes them hard to see. The other part of the problem is that there are often dozens of sponges to use, making it easy for miscounts to occur.

Is there a solution?

To combat the problem, some hospitals have purchased sponge tracking systems. These sponges are inserted with a tracking device, which then is picked up by a scanner. One hospital stated that since it started using the system, there has not been one instance of a sponge forgotten. Unfortunately, the number of hospitals who use the systems is small, despite the fact that the cost to have one would equal to about $6 per operation.

Hospitals in California have a responsibility to protect their patients from unnecessary harm. When patients are injured, they may want to talk to an experienced attorney.