Updated 18 November 2013

10 medical blunders

The wrong leg amputated, a towel left in the chest after an operation and a brain op done with a hand drill. Sound like a movie? Unfortunately not.


After five months of suffering doctors at a Czech clinic finally discovered the reason for the 66-year-old Zdenka Kopeckova's abdominal pain - a spatula-like surgical instrument was left behind in her abdomen after gynaecological surgery.

This is only the latest in a string of medical blunders patients regularly endure. Did you think that brain ops are only done with a hand drills in the movies? Well, unfortunately not.

Surgical and medical blunders happen everywhere. And they result in many court cases worldwide, especially in the United States, where there are legal firms specialising in taking erring doctors to court.

But before you cancel your upcoming operation, keep in mind that the risk you run of something like this happening to you is fairly small.

It’s interesting to note, however, that errors do not only involve surgery. These are merely the ones that usually reach the newspapers, because they are so sensational and the results often so final. Mistakes can occur with any of the following:

  • Medication
  • Medical procedures
  • Misdiagnosis
  • Administrative errors
  • Laboratory results
  • Equipment malfunction

Here are some spectacular medical blunders that have hit the headlines in the past few years.

Towel trouble. Bonnie Valle donated her body to science. A year after her death, her body was dissected by medical students, who found that a hand towel had been left behind her left lung during surgery for emphysema seven years before. She had complained of chest pains incessantly in the years before her death.

Brain drain. An elderly man, who had developed bleeding on the left side of his brain underwent surgery at a Rhode Island hospital. However, the surgeon operated on the wrong side of his brain. The patient survived.

Mastectomy mistake. Linda McDougal (aged 46) underwent a double mastectomy in the US, only to find out after the operation that she did not have cancer. Her test results had been switched with those of another woman.

Hear, hear. In 1991, a patient in Iowa City, had an operation to his ear, because he suffered from vertigo. You guessed correctly – the wrong ear was operated on. He took the doctors to court.

HIV horror. Several Italian doctors from the Careggi hospital are in serious trouble after transplanting some organs belonging to a woman who was HIV-positive. It was only found out after the transplants that she had been infected.

Penny problem. A couple from Nevada took their young daughter to the doctor eight times before it was discovered that she had swallowed a penny. She had been consistently treated for respiratory infection. An X-ray finally revealed the source of the problem.

Wrong leg. Five people in the United Kingdom had the wrong leg amputated between the years 2003 and 2006, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Details are not available.

Deadly dose. A patient at the Brockton Hospital in the US, who suffered from depression, was prescribed the sedative Librium, instead of the anti-depressant lithium - at 60 times the normal dosage. The poor man died.

Drugs trial. Six healthy men recently took part in a drugs trial at Northwick Park Hospital in London. The men were given the anti-inflammatory drug, and soon after became ill. Several of them landed in the intensive care unit, suffering from organ failure. Two were said to be critically ill. They responded to treatment.

Drilling drama. And to end on a slightly more positive note, a Peruvian doctor used a drill from the hardware store and his own pair of pliers to do brain surgery on a man injured in a fight. There were no instruments at the hospital. The operation was successful.

(Susan Erasmus,, updated November 2012)

(Sources:; weird.healthdiaries; cbsnews;


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