Performing surgery is no walk in the park. When the operating doors close, all bets are off and anything can happen. The worst part is, things often go wrong when you least expect it. From botched procedures with horrifying outcomes to hilarious mistakes, these are the best stories from the operating room.
1. The Human Torch
Way, way back in the day, we used ethanol-based cleaners for pre-op. Now picture a naked and fully-sedated guy with a light sheen of cleaning fluid on him. Add a static electric spark into the mix and you get a man fully engulfed in flames. Everyone just stood there for a second until someone grabbed a sheet and put out the fire.
The surgery went well in the end. No complications—human torch aside. At least the guy got a nice suntan.
2. A Thorn In The Side
This is my dad’s story. He was putting up a central line for a drip with an 18G needle (which is relatively big compared to most needles) in the patient’s external jugular. All of a sudden, the needle went right into the jugular. My dad and his co-workers all started panicking because usually with a drip, the needle is meant to come out and only the plastic remains; but in his case, he had lost the needle inside this guy’s jugular.
Before they could even fish out the needle it was gone. My dad looked at his fellow surgeons and nurses in total shock. They knew how could bad the situation was. Before they could do anything, they rushed the patient right into surgery. After a few minutes, they fished the needle out near his subclavian vein—closer to his heart. They breathed a sigh of relief.
3. Hello, Kitty
I wasn’t present for this, but I got to deal with the fallout from it. A client brought a stray cat that he found on the street to the veterinarian’s office. He wanted to get the cat spayed. The vet, who is also my boss, prepped the cat for surgery and began cutting. It was business as usual… until it wasn’t. For some reason, he couldn’t find the uterus or ovaries. And then it hit him—the cat was a male! Poor kitty.
The owner was, understandably, furious.
4. And the “Eyes” Have It
I was a junior doctor working in the neurosurgery department back in 2008. One of the senior registrars I worked with told me his most unfortunate moment in the operating room. In order to have a patient’s head stabilized for surgery, he used a frame that had a set of three spikes that held the head in place. Due to the angle he needed to approach from, this required the patient to be face down.
As he was placing the head of the anesthetized patient onto the frame, the unimaginable happened—the head slipped and his eye landed on to the spike, perforating the eyeball. Panicking and thinking that his career was now over, he then started poking at the eyeball, trying to work out what was what until the anesthetist told him to stop.
They then called the ophthalmologist who came to tidy up what was now a completely ruined eye. After the surgery, he went to explain to the patient what had happened. Understandably fearing the worst—anger, distress, and tears—he received the response of, “That’s OK, I was blind in that eye anyway!” from the patient.
Luckiest guy ever.
5. Get Woke
I was the patient in this scenario. I woke up during the last part of my gallbladder removal. I felt a peculiar sensation of pressure as my surgeon was trying to close one of the wounds. I lifted my head and we locked eyes—he had this startled “Oh God, no!” look in his eyes. Then he snapped back to normal, said to his colleague, “The patient’s up,” and the anesthetist put me back under.
I woke up an hour later in recovery.
6. An Upset Stomach
I was in charge of the ICU unit the other day and we had a pretty messy situation.
We had a patient who had some big abdominal trauma. He had gone to the OR and he was too sick for us to be able to close his abdomen, so we left it open. We had a sheet of plastic protecting his intestines and we placed a vacuumed sponge dressing on top of it called a “woundvac.”
The patient’s nurse called me into the room to look at the abdomen because she thought she saw pieces of the bowel seeping out of the bag and getting sucked into the “woundvac.” I agreed and thought the bowel looked pretty dusky as well, so we called the doctor to come and look at it. He advised that we take the woundvac off, tuck the bowel back into the bag it had escaped from and put a new woundvac on.
It all just sounded like it was going to be a disaster, but whatever. So, we took off the “woundvac”—we could see that the patient’s bowels had become very swollen from the fluids, trauma, etc. Just as we were lifting it, the unexpected happened—the patient’s bowels all slipped out. The bag had dislodged significantly. When we tried tucking the bowels in one side, they would spill out the other.
The guy was in his bed just disemboweling and we simply could not get everything back in. Luckily, the anesthesia we had given the patient kept him very nicely sedated…But it was MESSY. We really had to step back and say, “Well, shoot. How do we get this guy’s guts back inside of him?”
We ended up having to call in six other people to help tuck things back in. We finally got him back to the OR for them to get everything back into its proper place.
7. We Need Gauze Here!
I had a friend with a swollen area on his lower back. It got to the point where he could barely sit. He went to his doctor and he was told it was a pilonidal cyst. The doctor assured him that they would go ahead and take care of it. He told my friend to take off his shirt and lay flat on his stomach. As he laid there the doctor cautioned him that he would feel a slight poke. That’s when things took a turn for the worst.
Well, it turns out the “poke” the doctor was referring to was actually a full-on scalpel slice. He said it basically felt like someone took a hot poker and drove it into his back. He then heard the doctor exclaim, “Oh boy, We have a pumper!” just as he felt warm blood and puss pour all over his back. He said the nurse’s face went from a warm smile to what he termed as “pure and unadulterated fear.”
The doctor started screaming for her to get gauze and towels and then climbed up and laid on his back to apply pressure. It took ten minutes for the bleeding to stop. So, yeah. I’m hoping I never get one of those.
8. Don’t Have A Cow
Veterinarian here. This happened in my fourth year of vet school. A very valuable bull had an obstruction in his intestines that we had to remove. Generally speaking, the amount of money people spend on a food animal’s surgery is equal to the amount of money that food animal is worth. That said, we did this on the cheap. Full anesthesia on an animal as big a bull is crazy expensive, so we did a “standing” surgery.
We numbed him up really well but other than that, we only gave him light sedation. He was totally awake and standing for surgery. The surgeons made a two-to-three-foot vertical incision in his right flank and started pulling out armfuls of intestines and handing them to me and the other vet student assistants. There was a sterile drape on the bull and we were all in full sterile gowns.
The obstruction was pretty bad, so they had to remove a couple of feet of damaged intestines and then sew the ends back together. There was a lot of blood. A lot. The bull was starting to get stressed, impatient, and weak from blood loss. It started kicking at the chute and trying to move. We gave it more sedatives and the surgeons tried to sew faster.
By this time, everyone was sweating and there was a lot of swearing going on. The puddle of blood at our feet just kept getting bigger. The bull did a side shuffle and the intestines that another student was holding became trapped between the bull’s ribs and the metal bars of the chute. This was bad—even a few seconds of that could have lead to permanent damage.
The bull was too heavy to just shove over, so they removed one of the side rails of the chute to free the intestines. The bull was starting to get really angry. It started trying to lunge from side to side and the surgeons ordered us to let go of the intestines we were holding to keep the bull from breaking our arms against the rails of the chute.
The bull was really freaking out and, at one point, disaster struck—the bull managed to get completely out of the chute and started running around the room while mooing, stomping, and ripping huge chunks of intestines out of itself. Blood and guts were everywhere. Gallons of blood were everywhere. Keep in mind, this room was in a barn, which was mostly covered in hay and dirt.
Some huge guys managed to subdue the bull and wrestle it to the ground. They gave it more sedatives and pain meds. My job was to sit on its shoulder while another bigger student sat on its head. Everything was a complete fiasco at this point and I just felt so terrible for the poor bull who was bellowing non-stop. They washed off his mangled intestines as best as they could, stitched the ends together, dumped a ton of penicillin in his abdomen, and closed him up.
The bull survived surgery and then got tons of IV, antibiotics, fluids, and care. Every day his temperature got higher until he finally passed away a week later from a massive infection in his abdomen. It was awful. I have absolutely no idea what they told the owner.
9. Don’t Get Bent Out Of Shape Now
I worked in an OR for a couple of years as a biomedical engineer. Basically, my job was to sprint to the room when the equipment wasn’t working right or when the surgeon or anesthesiologist didn’t know how to use the equipment. With about 70 ORs, I was doing a lot of running and saw some surgeries that belonged in horror movies.
One time, a surgical table was malfunctioning going into full a Trendelenburg position, which is when the table tilts so that the patient’s head is below the level of their feet. They could slide off the table like an egg from a skillet. So, I went running into this room and the whole surgical team was there, holding on to the patient while his blood was pouring out everywhere.
The fix was pretty simple—I just slammed the controller against the floor a few times. Thankfully, the patient turned out ok.
10. You Can See Right Into My Brain
The microscope video feed for a brain surgery operation crashed. The surgery team called me in as a biomedical engineer to look at the issue. I tried different video connections to get the overhead monitors back up, but every time I tried, I accidentally hit the scope with my hand. It was causing vibrations that, under magnification, were overly noticeable in the brain. So, the surgeon told me to never mind and get out.
This was my first day on the job.
11. Right Down To The Bone
I’m not quite a surgeon but I received some medical training. I was bisecting someone’s leg and I hadn’t realized that the person had a metal rod through their femur. I’m not a construction worker, so I don’t know why I did what I did…but surgeons must press on. So, I did something that no one in the OR could have predicted. They all just stared at me with their jaws to the floor. I proceeded to cut through the bone with a metal saw. Sparks were flying everywhere and before long, my blade broke.
Luckily, I was standing off to the side instead of directly behind the blade as it flew backward and hit the wall. The clothes the person had been wearing were lying underneath the body and caught a spark. My “Oh, God, what have I done?” moment only lasted a second. I was able to douse the person with the water hose before a large fire could start.
Fortunately, the person I was operating on was deceased…or I would have been in big trouble.
12. The Zen Master
I’m a thoracic surgeon. I was still a young intern when this happened. I was young enough that the senior surgeon wouldn’t let me perform the whole surgery (under his supervision, of course), but old enough that he allowed me to do parts of the procedure. He might have overestimated my abilities at the time, honestly.
In my mind, I was doing a pretty decent job of dissecting a branch of the right pulmonary artery, freeing it from the cancerous nodes around it. Then, suddenly, dark blood started pulsing out of it. It was like the tide coming in, only way quicker—and way redder. My brain froze and I could only think, “Oh shoot,” but in far less family-friendly language. I then realized the grave error I had just made.
I had perforated the pulmonary artery—a very fragile organ that carries two and a half liters of blood every minute. Thank goodness my senior surgeon was the Zen Master he always is. He put his finger on the breach which stopped the bleeding immediately, then looked at me and just winked as if to say, “Well, you’re in trouble now, aren’t you?”
He stitched the pulmonary artery up himself and finished the procedure as if nothing had happened.
13. It’s Just Like Popping A Zit
I was the patient in a surgery that went horribly wrong…and I was awake for the whole thing. I was supposed to have a bump on my back removed and it was supposed to be standard procedure. For insurance reasons, they did it as an ambulatory in the OR of a hospital instead of at the surgeon’s actual office. That should have been the first red flag.
I was wide awake, face down in the OR. I had picked this guy as my surgeon because his main practice was plastic surgery. At the time, I lifted weights a lot and spent a lot of time working on my back. I wanted the smallest possible scar because I was so vain. But then the surgeon began with his first incision…then a second, larger incision…then an even deeper third.
That’s when the surgeon realized that the “bump” on my back was actually the extruding tip of a cyst. It had cut through my back straight to the back of my lungs. This surgeon wasn’t accustomed to operating on alert patients. As soon as he realized what was going on, he just said, “Oh God!” That was the beginning of a four-hour surgery. I was awake the whole time.
What they cut out of me was the size of an adult fist. In closing the wound, they drew in so much flesh that my right arm essentially became inflexible. I couldn’t lift weights for years. All that precious work shot down the drain.
14. “Oh, my Gauze!”
I’m currently in med school. This happened a few years ago when I was attending surgery classes. Thank goodness I hadn’t been the surgeon in this case because I might have dropped out from the embarrassment. One patient was up for a laparotomy and an investigation of an abdominal mass. We all thought that it was probably cancer.
Imaging tests were really not specific as the mass was presenting atypical features. Even the specialists couldn’t figure it out. To everyone’s surprise, the patient’s “cancer” turned out to be something totally different. The moment of realization came as the surgeon just stopped and said, “Gauze!” The nurse promptly gave him a roll of gauze and the surgeon said, “No. There was gauze inside of him!”
Turns out, the atypical presentation was just some forgotten gauze from some previous surgery.
15. You’re Biceps Look Huge
My dad had a torn bicep and had surgery to reattach it. It didn’t heal right and it remained swollen long after it should have healed. He kept having unexplained fevers and went in for IV antibiotic therapy for weeks. Finally, some other doctor got the idea that my father’s problems had something to do with his surgery…though, he probably didn’t need a medical degree to figure that out.
Anyway, they reopened my dad’s arm, and lo and behold, they found the problem. It was absolutely shocking. There was a medical “sponge” left inside his arm from the first surgery. It had been in there for so long that it had lots of necrotic tissue surrounding it. The original surgeons were idiots.
16. Knocked My Lights Out
When I was a medical student, I had the opportunity to scrub in on a big vascular surgery procedure. One of the lights was a bit tricky to adjust. The surgeon inadvertently gave it a yank, but he was maybe a bit too enthusiastic about it. The light hit the scrub nurse on the head, knocking her unconscious and into the huge table of open instruments.
17. It’s Getting A Little Hard To Breathe
I’m a nurse. In this medical nightmare, the doctor was an anesthetist. The patient had her surgery (I can’t remember for what) and it all went well. She was awake and in recovery, but we still needed to give her medication through her IV line. As is standard practice, we flushed the line with ten milliliters of saline. Just as soon as we did that, the patient had a reaction that made our hearts stop beating. Almost immediately, she stopped breathing and we had no idea why.
We called the code and the anesthetist came running. He actually said, “Oh God!” when he realized what had happened. During the surgery, the anesthetist had given the patient rocuronium through that same IV line and he hadn’t cleared the line afterward. So, when we flushed the line, the patient got a dose of rocuronium that had been sitting in the line.
In case you’re wondering, rocuronium is a muscle relaxant. It’s used to inhibit the respiratory muscles to allow for intubation and ventilation while under general anesthetic. In layman’s terms, it paralyzes the breathing muscles so you can’t take a breath no matter how hard you try. But that’s not even the scariest part. You’d think it puts you to sleep, but it does quite the opposite.
This patient was wide awake but totally unable to breathe throughout the whole ordeal. Luckily, the anesthetist worked out quickly what had happened and easily reversed it. The patient was physically fine but understandably traumatized.
18. When Nature Calls
This happened to me when I was in training to be a cardiologist. This disaster occurred during just my second or third heart procedure. Everything was going well until, all of a sudden, my senior doctor ran out of the room. He just ripped off his surgical gown and yelled “Oh, no!” and left. This surgeon had just abandoned me, a student, to complete his surgery. Little did I know I was in for the worst panic of my life.
I had just positioned these catheters with wires into the sleeping patient’s heart. They were just hanging out, pulsating to his heartbeat. I had never made it to this point in the procedure before and I started wondering where to take it from there. I hadn’t even learned how to take the catheters out safely. I was looking at the vitals and monitors like, “Oh no, what do I do now?”
They paged my senior cardiology fellow in training but he was taking a nap and not returning any of my pages or calls. There were no other doctors around. Finally, thank God, my tech assistant who had done these procedures before gave me a nudge to flush the catheters out in order to prevent blood clots.
After a few minutes, I had properly removed the catheters and wires. Apparently, the doctor had gotten food poisoning and had to make a run for the bathroom.
19. Better Call A Lawyer
This one is funny and no one was hurt—at least, not physically. One of my junior residents was helping me with a case when I was a chief resident in general surgery. We got a phone call from him in the operating room in the middle of a procedure. The nurse said, “Dr. Jones, it’s your wife. She asked me to ask you what today’s date is.” He replied, “Um, the 5th. What the heck?” The nurse spoke in a hushed tone on the phone for a minute and then came back with, “She wants to know what yesterday’s date was.” The, “Oh no!” look on his face was priceless.
His wife was a real pain. She hadn’t bothered to remind him or even yell at him for forgetting her birthday on the day itself. She had waited until the next day when she could be absolutely sure he had missed it. In case you were wondering; she was a lawyer.
20. You’ve Got Some Marbles on You
I’m a nurse. Thankfully, I was able to prevent this one surgery from going horribly wrong. I was assisting with a simple vasectomy and I noticed that the doctor was having a little trouble. It looked like he couldn’t differentiate between the vas deferens and the testicular artery. He started going in for the artery but I stopped him just before he cut it. If he had cut that, the testicle would have been a write-off and there would have been a very bloody mess.
But hey, testicular artery, seminal tube, vas the deferens?
21. Arm, Meet Hammer
I broke my wrist once. I had to undergo surgery to have the broken bone adjusted so it would grow to be a nice and functioning bone again. It appeared to be an easy and uncomplicated procedure, but then two hours later, I woke up with a cast around my arm, which they never told me I would need after the surgery. The doctor assured me everything went fine, but a couple of weeks later, I returned to him to have the cast removed…
As soon as he took it off, my blood ran cold. The surgeon had a confused look on his face and I could see him with that “Oh God” look. He told me perhaps the surgery didn’t go exactly as planned. He hadn’t placed the two parts of the bone in a straight-line during surgery, so after a couple of weeks in a cast, my arm had healed in a funny and crooked way.
In the end, he had to rebreak my arm and put it in a bit more of a straight position. A few weeks and a wicked-looking scar later, everything was okay again!
22. Can We Rain Check This One, Please?
My husband broke his back at work. Because we had to go through the insurance company, they made him go through everything but surgery first. Six grueling months later, and they finally approved him for surgery. He was in severe pain for months leading up to this, so we were really looking forward to this procedure.
On the day of the surgery, they wheeled him in and I sat in the waiting area with about a bunch of strangers also waiting for their loved ones. I knew it would be about five hours, so I was just settling in when I got the fright of my life. Approximately forty minutes into the surgery, a nurse and the surgeon poked their heads into the waiting room.
The surgeon looked directly at me and says, “Um, we have a problem. Can you step out here please?” My knees buckled. I felt the air leave the room as all the others gasped. I somehow found my feet and floated out to the hallway. The surgeon said, “Your hubby is fine, but right before I made my incision, I double-checked the cage (the equipment they put in to stabilize the spine) and it’s the wrong size. We have to wake him up and reschedule.” Biggest sigh of relief ever.
The surgery ended up happening two days later but my poor guy suffered a lot. Looking back, I’m really glad that the surgeon double-checked before cutting into him. The hospital was extremely accommodating to us afterward—to a fault. They were very nervous about a lawsuit. We just forgave them and moved on. Mistakes happen.
23. Let’s Take The Tube
Some years ago, my wife went in for surgery and we asked to have her tubes tied at the same time. After the surgery, the doctor came out to talk with me. He told me that the surgery went very well and that my wife would be coming out of the anesthesia soon. When I asked about the tubes, his eyes got really wide. Something was definitely wrong. He said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” and practically ran back to the OR.
They had to put her back under and re-open the sutures. I’m glad I asked about that, or we might have had a much bigger surprise than that.
24. That’s Nuts
I was a student assisting in the operating room when we came across a shocking discovery. A 65-year-old guy with kidney problems (possibly cancerous) needed to have a chunk of his kidney removed. It sounded like no big deal. We gave him his meds, knocked him out, then prepared to operate. But when we removed his gown, everyone in the room froze.
One of the surgeons actually exclaimed, “Balls!” That was relatively accurate. Apparently, our guy had some muscular disease that caused a massive abdominal hernia, and his intestines were herniating into his scrotum. It was honestly about the size of a deflated basketball.
25. Ready, Aim, Fire!
There was this time we had to amputate a lady’s leg. The whole thing was gangrenous—it was disgusting. I was with the nurses cleaning the patient for surgery when the surgeon came in to check on us. One of the nurses pressed too hard on a dressing and popped a blister, shooting puss across the room. The gross puss hit two people. Everyone screamed, then dry heaved at the smell. It was horrendous.
26. You’ve Gone Too Far This Time
I snapped my wrist once. It turned it into this mangled, nightmarish thing with a hump that was an inch or two high. It was horrific…I had to go to the ER. This was still when I was a teen, so it was my first experience with painkillers. I loved it. Anyway, they had to set the bone first, which involved putting one of my fingers in some kind of finger noose so that my arm would hang down straight.
With both of my parents there, I watched as the guy put his hands on either side of my wrist—which, to my utmost surprise, didn’t hurt at all—and then push. It made this awful sort of internal grinding crunch that I only sort of dimly remember. I definitely remember what happened next, though. The guy said, “Whoops, too far,” and then just shoved it again in the other direction.
I was entirely unperturbed thanks to the morphine but I later found out that my mom had to run out and vomit. Good times.
27. Don’t Lose Your Head
I’m a med school student. I knew another student who was two years older than me. He had a very unfortunate moment during his first-ever surgery. In the middle of the operation, he dropped a brain tumor on the floor. The lead surgeon laughed at him…and then told him to leave his operation room. The poor guy was devastated and never saw that surgeon again.
Thankfully, he still got a good evaluation for that rotation. I mean, he hadn’t dropped the patient’s actual brain after all.
28. A Generous Blood Donation
I was working in the ER one night when this huge dude, maybe 300 to 350 pounds, came in from a car accident with the paramedics giving him CPR. We quickly decided that he would have to go to the OR as he eventually flatlined. I was new and my knowledge was pretty limited at the time, but I knew they were going to have to massage the guy’s heart.
I was pretty relieved since we had all been taking turns pumping this big man’s blood for him. Shortly after he left, I was talking to some of the medics and doctors and they said that it would be a great experience for me to watch the procedure in the OR. So, I scrubbed up really quick and went in to watch in the back.
When I got to the OR, they were just about to start cutting the guy open. I watched in excitement as they began cutting through everything. Then, suddenly, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Blood started bursting out of this guy like a pot boiling over. There was more blood than I had ever seen (and hopefully will ever see again). I don’t remember anyone saying, “Oh my God,” but I remember everyone getting really quiet.
The operating team stepped back as the blood flowed out of him, onto the table, and then falling on the floor. The pool of blood crept across the floor until it got a couple of feet away from me. Most of the operating team were standing in a lake of blood by the time it stopped. The surgeons said that it looked like at least three liters of blood.
It was like something out of a horror scene and I think I was in shock because I felt so weird and out of place afterward.
Later on, I found out that upon a closer inspection of the X-rays, the poor (and very large) man’s sternum had given way. The going theories were either that his sternum had broken when his chest hit the steering wheel during his accident or from the CPR performed by the paramedics. People don’t realize how dangerous CPR can be.
The bone had splintered and punctured into his major blood vessels so we had just been pumping blood into his pericardium (heart sac). That’s what exploded when the OR team cut him open. There was little we could do to save this man’s life. After that episode, the sight of blood never bothered me anymore.
29. No Room For Mistakes
My mother is a doctor. During her training, she was assisting as an anesthetist alongside a senior surgeon and a few other junior doctors. The senior surgeon was known for having a very short temper and the rest of the faculty tiptoed around him to avoid any unnecessary outbursts. Towards the end of the surgery, one of the junior doctors ended up making a minor mistake.
The junior doctor’s mistake was no big deal, but the senior doctor wasn’t having it. In one of his infamous rages, he attacked the junior doctor with a scalpel. The poor rookie had to keep on working on the surgery. Afterward, my mom had to patch the guy up.
30. Return To Sender
My mom had to have surgery. Because the hospital didn’t have what they needed to do the procedure, they had to have an essential fluid for the surgery shipped to them. On the day of, my mom was ready to go. The operating team prepped the room and the surgeon took the day off from his practice to perform the surgery. Everything looked great, so they proceeded to put my mom under.
But when the fluid arrived, a nurse said, “We never ordered that.” She then sent the guy away with the fluid. This all happened after my mom was under anesthesia. She said that when she started to wake up, she could see the surgeon losing his mind on those nurses. They were all crying from how bad he flipped out on them.
31. Don’t Screw It Up
I was performing foot surgery once. It was just me and the attending nurse. Everything was as expected until we started trying to put a screw in the bone. We kept twisting the screw over and over again as hard as we could, but it wasn’t biting. Eventually, we tried a smaller screw—still no success. Then we tried a longer screw—still nothing. Then…crunch! We had just made a horrible mistake.
A few bone chips and K-wires later, and we had it fixed. But oh man, let me tell you, I was sweating for that small period of time.
32. Oh, Baby, Baby
I went in for a scheduled C-section at 37 weeks to deliver my first child. It also happened to be my first surgery ever (unless you count wisdom teeth). They decided to do the C-section because my kid had an in-utero growth spurt and at 37 weeks, he was already eleven pounds. They feared that if I went to 40 weeks my kid would be 15 pounds or more.
We checked in and everything went well. They got me prepped and wheeled me into the surgery bay. Then the anesthesiologist came in to give me the spinal block so that they could actually cut me open. They injected the stuff into my spine while I was sitting up, then laid me down in the bed. It all seemed to go okay, until the moment I was horizontal. That’s when I felt something was really, really off.
Turns out, my blood pressure completely tanked. I started vomiting uncontrollably (thank God I hadn’t eaten anything so it was just bile). My OBGYN had to start the surgery immediately while my anesthesiologist tried to clean up the bile. I vaguely remember they whisked my kid off to the NICU with my mom while the other support person stayed with me.
I honestly don’t remember most of what happened because I kept losing consciousness from my blood pressure being so low. My mom told me after the fact that they had brought a crash cart into my recovery room because the doctors were super worried that my heart was going to stop. After about four hours, my blood pressure finally stabilized and I was OK.
I ended up spending four or five days in the hospital to recover from the C-section. That just goes to show that sometimes even a routine surgery can take a harrowing turn.
33. Spine Tingling
My uncle tore a muscle in his lower back and had to go to the hospital. He had no idea that going to the hospital was going to make his situation so much worse. The doctor gave him an injection in the back to ease the pain while he waited for his surgery. Unfortunately, he can’t walk anymore—not because of the surgery, but because the needle hit his spinal cord.
34. Did You Feel That?
I had keyhole surgery done to drain a fluid build-up caused by a Grade-4 spleen laceration that had collapsed my left lung. My lung was collapsed for about a week, and when it expanded after that, it really hurt. They warned me about this but reassured me they would give me a hit of morphine beforehand and all would be sweet.
So, in came an intern who was supposed to perform the drainage as per her training. I was pretty cooked from my stay week in the hospital, so I didn’t notice that she forgot the morphine. None of the doctors noticed either. Anyway, the intern started to drain the fluid and it was happening really fast because of the super sucker machine. I took a big breath of air as the fluid drained out.
Lemme tell you, my spleen tearing in half hurt already hurt a lot. But my lung getting a little stretched? That was some excruciating, mind-warping pain. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, ever. Stupid intern.
This happened after my chest surgery. I explained to the anesthetist that anesthetics make me vomit uncontrollably. He just ignored me and went ahead with the infusion. I was sick at least 30 times in the 12 hours after my surgery. The nurses drew the curtains and just left me to it.
The hospital discharged me even though my stats weren’t great. The doctors had previously stated that they wanted me to remain under observation, but I was already on my way out. I was not given any antibiotics despite having a nine-inch incision. I even asked the nurse if I was meant to have them and they told me I wasn’t. The nurse accused me of being difficult for asking.
She then told me I had to wait in the car park for my lift home, so I stood outside for 30 minutes. She wanted me to carry my overnight bag despite telling me not to lift anything heavy for at least three weeks. Within the week, I was readmitted to the hospital. Another nurse told me that the previous nurse should’ve given me antibiotics. I had to be on IV drips for a week and have the full incision reopened to clean out the wound, which had at least half a pint of infection in it.
A doctor came to ask me not to sue the hospital.
36. Did I Knick An Artery?
I wasn’t the surgeon involved in this case, but anyway—a patient came in with a bump on his leg. After imaging it, it looked like it was an abscess collection that needed drainage. We admitted the patient to the OR for what should have been a routine procedure. The operating surgeon dissected the subcutaneous tissue, but then everything went haywire.
All of a sudden, blood was squirting everywhere. Turns out, the abscess was really a femoral artery aneurysm. Overhead Stat had to call for the vascular surgeon to bail him out.
37. It Was…Shocking
This story comes from my vet. He was in a super run-down barn with a pregnant mare in trouble. She’d been getting up, lying down, and getting up again, but nothing was happening. Apparently, horse births are difficult because the foal doesn’t turn until minutes before the actual birth is supposed to happen. If they’re in the wrong position, things could get deadly for the horse as there’s nothing in there but rigid legs and sharp little hooves.
So, there he was at night, up to his elbow in this frightened mare. She wasn’t really into what was going on and didn’t want to stand for it. The vet wasn’t terribly fleet of foot in that position, so it was up to the owner to keep the horse calm. Now, keep in mind this barn was in horrible shape. Really, it was just a dilapidated health hazard.
Well, the mare decided she’d had enough and tried to walk through the owner. That’s when everything took a turn for the worst. I’m guessing there was a stud chain involved (a metal chain that loops around the nose, jaw, over the gums, or however you want to attach it so that you have more “persuasive” power over the horse). The horse shoved the owner off-balance and, before they fell back, they managed to grab a live, uncovered wire.
Why there was a live wire in this old barn, I will never understand. But the result was that current flowed through the owner to the horse and into my vet. So now, the poor vet was elbow-deep in a terrified mare while all of them were getting electrocuted. He didn’t explain to me how he got out of that, but the mare was okay and she delivered a live foal.
They named the filly Electra.
38. Super Soaker
Right as I was about to graduate from medical school, I had one of the most formative experiences that led to my surgical career. I was on-call late one night with a chief resident who was really a pleasure to work with. He let me take the lead on minor procedures and helped me work on the things that were actually interesting among the drudge work.
Well, this was not one of those enlightened moments, but it fits the question. This wonder chief—we’ll call him Wiggles—called me to the ED to assess a patient for possible surgery. “Amazing!” I thought, “He trusts me enough to let me work up this patient!” So, off I trotted in a fervor of anticipation to the room where my patient was.
Wiggles was standing there with this pie-eating grin on his face. He just said, “The orders are in, but you need to do the pre-op note and you’ll be doing the procedure. Enjoy!” Then he just walked off laughing. “Interesting,” I thought to myself. But I wasn’t about to let Wiggles rain on my parade. I decided that I was going to have this moment to shine and all would be well.
But when I walked in, I quickly realized why Wiggles was laughing. What I saw haunts me to this day—It was a bum-puss case. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, a bum-puss case is when you have an abscess filled with the vilest, malodorous, repugnant filth to ever grace the medical profession. You have to open up the glory of this pocket of putrescence so that the cavity in which it dwells can fill in with nice, healthy, non-bum-puss. They most often occur in people who already have trouble fighting infections or have a lot of tissue where they can hide a pocket-o-poo.
My guy was a stinky, sugary, smoke-stack of a whale. He also had what was a massive amount of puss hanging out just under the skin of his VW-Beetle-sized butt. Thankfully, it was an easy workup and he was actually a nice guy with a great sense of humor. Wiggles had told him that a stupid med student would be doing the honor of treating him. As I was getting him ready for the procedure, he said, “I just want to warn you. I’m a squirter.” That stopped me in my tracks.
“Haha, don’t worry buddy. You’ll figure it out,” he said. Writing this story now, it’s obvious what he meant, but I was naive and still psyched about doing my own procedure that I just forgot about it and went to the OR to get everything ready. As we got the guy positioned on the table, it occurred to me how truly large this guy was.
He had to be around 450 pounds and he had rolls of fat dripping down his legs. We had to put his legs in stirrups so that we could get to his bum crack and do the procedure. I positioned myself front and center, staring deeply into this guy’s brown eye while the chief resident and attending physician held—with both hands—rolls of fat aside so that I could get to the area in need of debridement.
I numbed his skin, called for the knife, and then stopped. In that second, I realized what he had meant about being a squirter. There was no other reasonable explanation and I can’t imagine why I hadn’t realized it sooner. But being the only one scrubbed and prepped for the procedure, I had no choice but to proceed. The attending, perhaps sensing my hesitation, looked down at me with a smile that was visible through his surgical mask. “Son,” he said, “We’ve all been there. Well probably not there, but it doesn’t matter. You’re going to do this.”
I leaned forward and placed the blade into the puss pocket. The big beluga of a patient gave a great heaving snore and then a cough. He shifted what must have been half an inch down right as I pierced the skin. The increased intra-abdominal pressure combined with this guy’s massive thighs acted like a finger over the end of a hose. Then, the worst thing to ever happen in my career happened. A straight shower of feculent horror blasted forth, covering my surgical gown, cap, shoes, and glasses.
I was speechless. My brain couldn’t simultaneously process the horror, hilarity, and smell of what just happened. The other attendants in the room, however, had no trouble as they’d been expecting that from the start. I handed back the scalpel to the scrub nurse, the only one to keep her composure, while the attending, chief resident, circulating nurse, nurse assistant, and the three other med students who had been watching from the door all completely lost it. I must have looked like a medical Jackson Pollock.
I truly wish that I had had a witty response prepared. Or that I’d been cool enough to just keep going as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t see through my puss-caked goggles and I must have smelled worse than a pigsty. I let out a meager, “Uh, can I go change?” The attending, laughing way too hard to make any sense, simply nodded and pointed out of the OR.
I took off the gown and all the puss-covered materials and went to take the longest, hottest shower possible. I put the scrubs in the laundry and promptly told the maintenance crew that they should burn those clothes…immediately. The guys laughed until they saw the damage, then the laughter turned to faces of horror. It was their problem now.
As I understand it, the rest of the procedure was uneventful. When I went back into the call room, the rest of the med students gave me a standing ovation. By that time, the hilarity of what had happened had surpassed any embarrassment that I had felt. The patient had had the procedure before and had, apparently, oozed quite a bit.
It was my worst moment in surgery. Though it was gross, I wasn’t really that disturbed on a deep level. After that, I feel like there is very little that would shake me at the core in terms of bodily fluids. After all, I was baptized in the absolute worst of it.
39. Did I Set My Alarm?
This isn’t as gruesome as some of the others but I definitely gave the surgeons a real fright. I had several herniated discs, a pinched nerve, and spinal spondylosis. I went in for a major epidural. Most people get one or two, but I was getting six—it was a bad situation. Basically, what was supposed to happen was that they were going to put me under, fit a needle in-between my discs, and give me a shot.
Well, I woke up on the table. It might have been due to the fact that I had already been taking some heavy doses of narcotics or maybe the anesthetist just gave me the wrong dose. I was kind of hazy, but I was definitely aware. I could feel a slight burning and fuzzy feeling in my back. It felt kind of like butterflies.
I could see a screen that kind of looked like an X-ray reading—was I looking at my own spine? I found out later that the surgeon watches the screen to guide the needle so that they don’t run into anything important. I started coming to my senses and just as I was about to raise my head, I heard one of the nurses shouting something.
One of the nurses kept shouting, “He’s awake! He’s awake!” It didn’t sound like she panicking, but she definitely sounded alarmed. I wanted to tell her to relax—maybe take some anesthesia because I felt great—but by then, someone else had stuck me with another IV and I fell back to sleep. All in all, it was a win. When I woke up, I threw a fit about it and they gave me the rock star treatment.
40. You Should Be Feeling Very Sleepy
This happened during a procedure that I was working on. I was placing an IVC filter (a small metal filter that sits in the inferior vena cava to prevent blood clots from traveling from the legs to the lungs) when I got the fright of my life. It was meant to be a simple procedure. Basically, we were supposed to tunnel into the femoral vein and travel up into the vena cava where we would leave the filter in place.
In order to confirm our location in the body, we had to use a radiolucent contrast and an X-ray to light up the vena cava since we were basically looking from outside of the body. The scrub tech handed us 100cc of contrast and we injected it straight into the vena cava. Then we waited for the X-ray to light up… only, nothing happened.
Not able to figure out why we couldn’t see it, we asked the scrub tech for another 100cc of contrast and again injected it into the vena cava. Again, no luck. At a loss, we thought maybe that the contrast was bad, so we drew up some more and looked at the syringe under the X-ray before injecting it this time. That’s when we realized our huge mistake.
Of course, the syringe did not light up under the X-ray. While we were trying to get some new contrast into the OR, the patient—who we had sedated and intubated—began to seize. We finally looked over at the scrub tech’s table and realized what she had done. Turns out, she had been drawing up 100cc (twice mind you) of lidocaine, a quick-acting anesthetic that you are not supposed to inject directly into the central circulation of the body.
I was working with a very senior vascular surgeon at the time and I’ve never seen her look the slightest bit phased by anything. But when she realized what we had given the patient (and how much, i.e., 200cc of lidocaine) she looked like she was about to faint. Luckily, the patient suffered no permanent harm due to this medical error.
41. Too Little, Too Late
I asked my grandfather, a surgeon of 30 years, what his worst experience was. He told me a story about opening a patient up to fix something serious with his aorta (it’s been ten years since I heard the story so the details are a bit hazy). Anyway, he and the other surgeon opened the guy up for this dicey operation. What they found shocked them.
When they opened the patient up, they found several significant tumors. Like, “Well darn, this guy is toast,” tumors. He said he’d never seen so much cancer. They went out to break the bad news to the family, but little did they know that this guy made it to the pearly gates earlier than they had expected. And it wasn’t even cancer that did him in.
When they went back into the operating room trying to figure out what to do about the tumors, the patient’s aorta dissected. He began hemorrhaging with my grandfather and this other surgeon shouting and scrambling to clamp it up and stop the bleeding. But they were too late. The guy bled out. My grandfather said it was over in seconds.
He felt bad, but the guy was facing a pretty painful future anyway with all of those tumors. He figured that there was less suffering that way, but secretly I think he was upset that they couldn’t save him.
42. In Your Face!
This wasn’t a big mistake, but it was definitely awkward at the time (and hilarious now when I look back on it). I was gluing up a lac on a 14-year-old girl’s forehead. Anyone who has used Dermabond before knows that that stuff can be runny but it bonds very quickly. Well, I ended up gluing my glove to her face. Her mom was in the room and I had to turn to her and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve just glued my glove to your daughter’s face.”
43. I Spy With My X-Ray Eye
I was working in the ER when my jaw nearly hit the floor. A patient showed up to the ER covered in blood after attending a rap concert. We were all so focused on a bullet wound with an arterial bleed that we missed the obvious. The nurse placed a blood pressure cuff over another wound on the patient’s arm. We all missed it.
Even during the secondary assessment, I still missed this other injury. We didn’t find it until we did a chest X-ray. Then, my heart sank. There was another bullet resting in the posterior portion of the thoracic wall. Fortunately, it had come to rest without significant trauma to major organs. The patient lived, but I nearly swallowed my stomach.
44. Keep Calm & Surgeon On
This one’s funny because the “Oh my God!” moment only led to more panic. My mom was an OBGYN and she told me about this incident that occurred early on in her career. She didn’t really make a medical mistake, but she still almost ruined the operation. She was performing a C-section when she dropped her scalpel on the floor.
Before she could even think, she blurted out, “Oh darn,” as a reaction. The mother—who was in labor and already stressed out—freaked out, thinking something must have gone horribly wrong with the baby. She started panicking and it took the whole team of nurses, the husband, and the mother of the patient to calm her down.
In the operating room, it’s always best to stay calm.
45. It’s Kind Of Like The LSATs
This “Oh my God!” moment was actually a sigh of relief for everyone. I once accidentally ran a creatinine test on a patient when the doctor had actually ordered a comp metabolic test. It turns out that the guy was in renal failure…and no one knew it. He was about to go in for surgery (I believe it was a bypass, but I could be wrong) when I got the test results.
I was able to stop them from putting him under just in time—like, needle prepped and measured, going into the arm, just in time. It could have been a tragic ending.
46. How Good Are Your Reflexes?
My mom gave her surgery team a real fright. She had to go in for foot surgery. What the surgeons didn’t know was that my mom had really bad fibromyalgia—even under anesthesia. So, when the surgeons started poking around her foot, it jumped up. They nearly botched her surgery because of it, but all ended up OK. They must have thought that it was something like out of a zombie movie!
47. I Seem To Have Lost My Glasses
I’m a veterinarian, but this happened when I was a fourth-year student. I was observing an orthopedic procedure that could have been a skit on Mad TV. The resident surgeons leaned over to see a structure that the operating surgeon was pointing out. She must have learned over too far because her glasses fell right off…and into the wound bed.
The surgeon threw up their arms, said, “Forget this!” dropped the leg, and stormed out of the OR. The resident was blind without her glasses and started bawling her eyes out. I just wanted to disappear into the scenery.
48. Keep Your Mouth Shut
I was the patient in this “Oh my God,” moment. My crazy surgeon would never tell the story himself, so I’ll tell it for him. When I was 18, I had to get my impacted wisdom tooth removed. I went to a surgeon who informed me that the tooth in question was pretty much fully formed. For the surgery, he would have to put me under a general anesthetic so he could break up the tooth to remove it. It sounded pretty routine.
On the day of surgery, I went in thinking it would all be great. I arranged for my mother to pick me up after a couple of hours because I couldn’t drive home by myself with anesthesia in my system. She arrived and the staff informed her that I was still in surgery. After nearly another two hours of waiting, she felt like something wasn’t right and immediately called my father.
My father came in and the staff told him the same thing; I was still in surgery. At some point, my parents finally said they wanted to see me and threatened to call the cops. That’s when the staff revealed the shocking truth—the surgeon had inadvertently broken my jaw. Apparently, instead of breaking up my wisdom teeth, the surgeon had tried to take them out in one piece.
On the very first tooth, he snapped my mandible. It popped up into the muscles in the back part of my cheek, coming up against two nerves, the trigeminal and facial nerves. In a total panic, this failure of a surgeon wired my jaw shut. He hadn’t asked my next of kin what they wanted him to do, nor did he take an X-ray. As it turns out, the reason you take an X-ray is that you need to make sure the bone is set. My bone was not set.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the bone didn’t heal because it wasn’t set correctly. It slowly sawed through my trigeminal nerve, destroying sensation in the lower right half of my face. I looked like a stroke victim because I had very little control over it. It’s since gotten better and moves more or less with the rest of my face, but I don’t have as much control there as I should.
This was probably the most pain I’d ever experienced in my entire life. I took liquid Vicodin (remember, the idiot surgeon had wired my jaw shut) every two hours. I could barely sleep and needed help with tasks like walking upstairs and going to the bathroom because of the pain and the medication. It was insufferable.
We eventually found a doctor to fix my jaw. He had to re-set the bone. This was about a six-hour surgery and it required a two-night hospital stay. The bone was so badly out of whack that it needed a plate and seven screws installed just to stabilize it. This new doctor had to keep my jaw wired shut for another ten weeks while it healed, but that’s not even the worst part—later on, I was told the nerve damage was permanent.
The original doctor who broke my jaw refused to admit responsibility or pay any of the damages. Presumably, his counsel advised him never to admit to making a mistake. So, I sued for that. In the deposition, he said he broke up the tooth, which of course he hadn’t. I had the tooth to prove he was lying, after which we settled for the amount of damage.
About 75% of the settlement ended up going to things like lawyers’ fees so I still came out behind on all that. But I have a wicked scar on my neck from the surgery and my other three wisdom teeth, so I have that going for me.
49. And This Is Why We Wash Our Hands
Sometimes, surgeons are the ones in for an unpleasant surprise. My father is a physician and, although he’s not a surgeon, he did some surgery while in medical school. He told me a story about a patient he had once who had necrotizing fasciitis—a.k.a. a really nasty flesh-eating disease. I almost wish that he hadn’t told me this story. It’s like something out of The Walking Dead.
The patient had gotten a cut while gardening and never cleaned the wound properly. My dad told us that he had to peel back layers just to get at it. First, he peeled off the bandages that the patient had self-applied. Then there was a layer of holy book pages that he also had to peel off. Layer upon layer, bandage upon bandage.
Finally, beneath all that, was the wound itself. No amount of med school training could have prepared my father for what he saw. The wound was covered in maggots. Apparently, they were eating the dead-tissue generated by the disease. He said that once they removed the maggots, they were able to begin the surgery to remove the infected areas.
Oddly enough, this patient had the maggots to thank for keeping his appendages intact. Because the maggots had eaten away the dead and infected flesh, my dad and his team didn’t have to amputate the patient’s limb. After this operation, though, my dad decided to not pursue surgery and focus on becoming a specialist.
50. It’s Just A Scratch
I’m a nurse. I was working in the ER when I had a “What just happened” moment. A guy came in for a scratch on his neck and said he was “feeling drowsy.” We started the usual workups, but then something completely unexpected happened—this dude’s blood pressure just tanked. We scrambled to do everything we could but he was gone within ten minutes of walking through the door.
Turns out, the “scratch” he had been complaining about was actually the exit wound of a .22-caliber round. The guy didn’t even know what had happened to him. When the coroner’s report came back, we found that that the bullet had entered his leg and ricocheted through his torso, shredding everything in between. There was really nothing we could’ve done.