When surgery goes wrong due to human error

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

We hear about patients who suffered due to complications during or after surgical procedures, but when the patient is you, a family member, or a friend, the reality hits home.

Surgery saves lives and improves the quality of life for myriad individuals. But what happens when surgery goes wrong? How do surgeons correct injuries and errors? What should the patient do?

For example, a 2015 article in the journal Arthroplasty Today entitled, Popliteal Artery Damage during a Total Knee Arthroplasty (TKA), discussed what happened to two patients. Both experienced “sharp damage of popliteal artery during TKA.” According to the authors, the majority of vascular injury during total knee replacement surgery involves the popliteal artery; however it is a rare complication.

A 76-year old female patient (I’ll call her Margie) experienced and verbalized her pain immediately after TKA surgery. Margie’s surgeon ordered a Doppler ultrasonography, emergent CT angiography, and found a tear in the popliteal area. Because a diagnosis was made early, a second surgery was performed without delay, whereas a catheter entered the tear inside the artery and blood flow was restored. A postoperative Doppler confirmed blood flow without a leakage. Margie recovered.

Another 76-year old female patient (I’ll call her Shelia) underwent TKA surgery. On the third day, Shelia experienced popliteal pain, swelling, and redness of the area. The surgeon ordered a Doppler ultrasonography, but Shelia was misdiagnosed. On the 40th day after surgery, Shelia was rushed to the emergency room and a mass in the popliteal area was found along with three tears. She underwent a second surgery, and the fresh blood clots were removed. Shelia recovered.

The purpose of my article is to provide information about prevention, intervention, and postvention concerning surgery.

Prevention. Take the same person with you each time you meet with the surgeon so she/he can listen and ask questions. Research the diagnosis and treatment options. Ask a public reference librarian how to find reputable websites and medical journal articles. Find an experienced surgeon that specializes in your condition. Get a second opinion. Ask about surgery complications and corrective surgeries. The purpose of patient education and knowledge is not to produce worry, anxiety, and distress, but to be a wise patient. While putting trust in your surgeon is important, it’s also imperative to know the benefits and risks of any surgical procedure. And read informed consent forms.

Intervention. Before surgery request follow-up visits in the hospital from the surgeon and not his/her assistant. Ask family members and friends to take turns staying at the hospital with you at all times after surgery. Ask postoperative questions. From staying with family members after surgery, I’ve observed how some surgeons hurry-scurry in and out of the hospital room. Speak up immediately concerning sharp and intense pain. Be respectful, but firm about any concerns.

Postvention. Talk with the surgeon about the surgical error. Consult with the patient advocate at the hospital when surgery goes wrong. Ask for copies of all your hospital records. Request an investigation, file a grievance, and/or submit a complaint to the hospital and/or the medical board in your state. When needed contact an attorney that specializes in negligence and malpractice lawsuits. Consider a second opinion from another attorney.

Before I underwent a surgical procedure, I met three times with the surgeon to explore other non-surgical treatment options and to discuss the benefits and risks. He consulted with my referring physician. He presented as a caring person with an excellent medical reputation. He didn’t rush in and rush out or stare at a computer screen during the entire appointment.

Please note that I am not a surgeon nor am I offering medical advice. However, I want you to be an informed patient before and after surgery.


Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com. Contact her at [email protected]

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com. Contact her at [email protected]