Surgeons Confess Their Heart-Stopping Mistakes

March 26, 2021 | Scott Mazza

Surgeons Confess Their Heart-Stopping Mistakes

Becoming a surgeon isn’t for the faint of heart. Sure, there are the extra years in medical school that can wear away even the best and brightest, but then there’s the actual job itself. Surgeons literally hold their patients’ lives in their hands, not to mention entire organs. So when they slip up, the stakes are terrifyingly high—and these stories prove it.

1. Measure Twice, Cut Once

I work in the pathology lab where the hospital sends all the specimens. One day, a surgeon did a double mastectomy based off a different hospital’s pathology report. The report said the woman had the kind of breast cancer where both need to be removed. But when we examined her specimens, we made an utterly disturbing discovery.

We found zero cancer in either breast. Obviously, the surgeon was beside himself and made us look through both IN THEIR ENTIRETY...It’s unheard of to submit all the tissue like this, but he needed to find cancer. I’ve never seen a surgeon stand there and watch the pathologist like this guy did. We all felt so bad for him and of course the patient.

He was so upset, cussing up a storm the whole time and screaming about “this is why I never take outside pathology reports!” Turns out, the other lab had mis-labeled her tissue, so some other lady got the all clear who had cancer, while she lost her entire chest when she didn’t need to. All around a horrible situation, and the surgeon was sick over it all.

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2. My Granny, What A Foul Mouth You Have

I was doing varicose veins surgery on a very posh British middle-aged lady with a very upper-class accent. There was an anaesthetic that we used that sometimes induced some hallucinations either going under or coming out of anesthesia, and we often heard some funny things. Anyway, this lady was in recovery and just coming out of the anesthetic.

The team were around waiting for her to wake up, and she gagged a little on the tube in her throat for breathing, so we knew it was time to remove it. She gagged, we removed the tube, and she smacked her lips and said loudly, in her incredible accent: "That's the best bit of dong I have had in years!" The whole recovery room just fell about laughing. Luckily, she didn't remember it.

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3. Line Of Sight

This was one of the more bizarre things I've witnessed in an OR. So, the surgeon brought in a bad pair of glasses. Here we are, total hip replacement, and the surgeon is going to town with what I lovingly call the human grater, which is a doohickey to make sure the new hip socket will fit in. Picture a cheese grater wrapped around a golf ball on the end of a power drill. It's not pleasant.

Anyway. Dude's grinding away at the guy’s hip and suddenly yelps in surprise and stops, backing quickly away from the table. We're all like, what the heck? Well, his glasses spontaneously broke in half. They were the type that didn't have rims, just lenses with a bar across the nose and bars for the ears. So the metal crossing the nose snapped at the screw.

The surgeon quickly starts stripping off his gown, the rest of his equipment, and leaves the room. Comes back with a roll of tape. Him and the circulating nurse can't get the glasses fixed, so he just holds them to his face and has her run the tape around his head a few times. Then he suits up again and goes back to acting like nothing happened.

All in all, it only added like 10 minutes to the surgery time, at least that I could catch directly. I hadn't been with that surgeon before, but I can't imagine that was his best performance after the glasses broke, seeing how they were now taped across his eyes at weird angles. But yeah, don't buy $5 readers for the freaking operating room.

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4. Back To Basics

My mother was having intense spine surgery, and her idiot surgeon apparently couldn’t do math correctly, because he left two sponges inside of her, which meant she’d have to have an entire other surgery again to remove them. My mom was 20+ years sober, so she refused most of the pain medications after her first surgery.

When the hospital realized and had to confess they messed up, she had a mental breakdown over facing all that pain again. She got a lawyer and they settled ASAP for about $50K. My mom thought that was fair, but my godfather is a retired federal prosecutor and said it would have been $100K easy with another attorney. This happened about 15 years ago.

My mother has a master's in biology and knows, well, stuff happens. It's a testament to her character that she decided the settlement was fair for an accident. Yet another example of how extraordinary my mom is and how under-appreciated this retired high school biology teacher remains. I lover her so much, and I'm so glad she's OK.

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5. Not All Right In The Head

I had brain surgery a few months ago. They put a shunt in (my first one) so it goes from the center of my brain to my abdomen. When I woke up, I vaguely remember the surgeon saying that my intracranial pressure was really high. After a few days in the ICU from a brain bleed that luckily healed on its own, I went home.

I get to my post-operation meeting and ask the doctor how high my pressure was, thinking he measured it like you would during a spinal tap. So then this lovely conversation happened. Surgeon: "Oh, we didn't measure it." Me: "How do you know it was high then?" Surgeon smirks and does a half laugh. "...Well, I drilled through your skull and of course spinal fluid comes out. But with you it was so high that as soon as I got through your skull it shot out, covering me AND the wall behind me.”

“Never seen anything like it,” he continued, “I had to get a new gown." My mom, the surgeon and I had a good laugh at that. I imagine there were some curses while trying to manage the situation, and I wish I was awake to hear it. I had to wait three years for this surgery because no one believed I was suffering as much as I was, and he believed me and fixed it.

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6. Coming In Wrong And Strong

My mom had to have a mastectomy on her left breast. They were getting her ready and came in saying, “Ok, so we’re going to remove the right one.” Then we were like, “Uh no, the left.” The nurse goes “Oh, hold on” and cue 15 minutes of endless right, both, left suggestions and several different nurses coming through. Finally the surgeon comes and is like “left.” But that wasn't all.

The same surgeon told her the tubes they put in for drainage would be removed by the time she could go to work in a month. But just a day after the surgery, a resident came in toward the end of the day and told her he was there to take the tubes out. She said, no the surgeon said it would be a month. He pressured her and took them out. I mean, these had been stitched to hold them in place.

The next day, she is in so much pain and her chest is swollen and hard. They call the surgeon and he comes in without the resident who had been following him around. He takes one look at her and goes beet red in the face. He’s so angry. Yep, they definitely weren't supposed to take those tubes out, and now my mom is in big trouble.

He has to help drain her fluids himself, because they can’t go back and re-insert the tubes anymore thanks to the resident. He also had his resident apologize and laid into him for the mistake, but that didn't save my mom from a month of manual drainage.

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7. I Just Can’t Quit You

Medical student here. I was going to be watching a procedure of a 60-something-year-old lady get her pacemaker leads changed on a Monday. Well, right before the attending began the procedure and the patient was still a little awake before the anesthesia was completely administered, she let out a disturbing confession. She told everyone that she had smoked crack the day before.

The procedure had to be postponed to Wednesday of that week to let the substance get out of her system. So we finally finish the operation and it goes well. Then, when the attending doctor called the sister of the patient post-operation to let her know the results and any precautions they had to take, the sister asks the doctor "if her sister could smoke again?"

Because the phone was on speaker, the entire room just face-palmed.

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8. Hanging By A Thread

A few years ago, my mom had a major stroke, which left her on a permanent feeding tube, placed in her abdomen, for about three months of her recovery. I will say, she got the absolute best care other than this one incident, and she had a miraculous recovery, to quote the doctors. But, yeah, there was one major mess up in her case.

When she had the feeding tube removed from her abdomen, we weren't worried, because it’s a fairly simple procedure from what we were told. Then my dad goes to change the bandage when the time comes, and what does he find, but a string, sticking right out of my mother's incision. So, he called the doctors, thinking that probably wasn't right.

They very quickly got her back in to remove the pieces they had left in her. My dad taped the string to a sticky note and hung it in the kitchen. He said he'd file a lawsuit, but nothing yet. I think he was just glad she's alive, and tired from all we'd been through.

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9. A Swing And A Miss

Recently, my eight-year-old grandson went for his surgery to have a cyst removed from his thyroid gland. It’s supposed to be a simple surgery—you go in the morning, and come home in the afternoon. An hour later, my son (the dad) calls me. Something went horribly wrong. My grandson is being rushed by ambulance to the local hospital with a children's wing.

Apparently, the damage was so severe that the surgeons at the new hospital didn't even know what to do. The original surgeon had cut my grandson's vocal cords, and he cut a hole in his larynx. They then called to talk to experts at Seattle Children's Hospital. My grandson has been sedated and ventilated this entire time.

The following day, the doctors recommend my grandson be flown to Seattle Children's Hospital. The mom gets to fly with my grandson, my son drives over by himself. They arrive Friday morning, and the new surgeon does the six-hour repair surgery from 5-11 pm on Friday night. My grandson spent the next week under sedation and on the ventilator.

After that, the new surgeon opened my grandson up again to take a look and told my son and daughter-in-law that everything looked better than he had even hoped for. The surgeon had three goals. First, that my grandson would be able to breathe on his own and not need a tracheotomy. Second, that he would be able to eat and swallow on his own. And third, that he would still have his voice.

Yes, that’s how bad this was. But after two weeks in Seattle, they came home and my grandson is doing fantastic! He does have to go to Seattle to see his wonderful surgeon every few months to have scar tissue scraped from his vocal cords. Still, he is doing awesome, and that surgeon succeeded in meeting every one of his goals.

Two other items: My grandson has wanted to be a voice actor since he was four years old. And then finally, the worst thing. The original surgeon that messed up called my son and told him that once he opened my grandson up, he saw that it was not a cyst on his thyroid gland, but a lymph node. Yet he continued to perform the surgery! My son and daughter-in-law have a malpractice suit against this doctor.

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10. Thar She Blows

This was from my days as a vet technician. There was a small dog in for surgery because he, if I remember correctly, hadn't peed for days, but was otherwise healthy. It was some sort of blockage that couldn't be handled in the exam room. So we get him sedated and prepped for surgery. The dog is splayed open on the table and his poor bladder was as full as it could go.

It was like the biggest water balloon you've ever seen, except this is full of days’ old urine. And of course, like a good water balloon, the slightest pressure caused it to burst all over teenage me and the good doctor. So I'm in shock. Pee dripping off my face and covering my scrubs. No mask, face shield, etc...this was a vet office in Alabama.

We don't need no stinking PPE. Except I desperately do need PPE at that moment. We cleaned up the dog, got the ruptured bladder repaired and stitched him back up. I'm pretty sure that was the moment where I decided my childhood dream of being a vet wasn't quite as glamorous as I thought after all. I am not a vet now, either.

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11. That’s Not Supposed To Be There

This was a very weird oops. I was the patient. The day I turned 14, I had an ovarian cyst rupture and bleed into my abdomen. They took me to a children’s hospital and they decided on surgery to drain the blood and an appendectomy because I already had horrible pain on that side and it looked a tiny bit deteriorated. Besides, I had an uncle pass from a ruptured appendix and they didn’t want any risks for me.

When they removed it, they used a surgical staple to close off where the appendix was attached to the colon. The problem was, I actually had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and was diagnosed a day later, so multiple ovarian cysts showing up and pushing on stuff in my abdomen was going to be a regular problem. So seven years later: horrible pain, bunch of cysts again.

I get taken out of college and rushed home for surgery, with my gynecologist thinking it’s endometriosis or something. Nope. It’s the staple from my appendectomy in the middle of my gut, floating towards my stomach. She later figured out that this was actually a reoccurring issue, especially for women who had PCOS or who were younger.

In a few cases she found, the staples ended up migrating to the skin and trying to come out of the body that way. It wasn’t malpractice or a true mistake, just what they used at the time versus what they would have done now. My doctor, however, did have some choice words regarding the previous surgeon’s decision, because I was her third patient in five years this happened to.

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12. The Difference A Letter Makes

A nurse assisting in the imaging center obtained an order for an anti-anxiety medication called Versed to be given to a patient getting an MRI. This patient had issues with claustrophobia, so this was necessary to obtain good images with the patient. The nurse went to search for the drug in the pyxis machine. Then it went so, so wrong.

So she has to type the medication name in like a Google search in the screen to pull the drug. She types in only "Ve," which pulls up relevant substances by alphabetical order, and without looking, she clicked the first medication and gave it to the patient. Almost immediately, the patient suffocated and passed, right there on the spot. It was only afterward they found out what happened.

When the nurse typed "ve," the first medication alphabetically wasn't Versed, it was Vecuronium. The difference being an anti anxiety medication versus a paralytic medication, which paralyzed them while conscious and suffocated them.

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13. One Man’s Trash…

I work for pathology. An oncologist I met at the lab would tell me all of these horror stories, but one of them sticks out in my mind as one of the most horrific mistakes I’ve ever heard a medical professional make. Specifically, I will never forget about the one time a nurse threw someone's donated organ transplant into the rubbish bin. Yep, really.

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14. Two For One

I’m not a surgeon, but I did encounter a weird hospital mistake that’s too memorable not to share. When I worked for a funeral home, I once picked up remains from the hospital morgue (which is a fairy routine procedure) and then discovered an extra foot in there before I cremated the body. That was an interesting call to the head of that department.

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15. Trust No One

I’m a medical student on my anaesthetics placement. I went to see a patient due for surgery that morning. On my way back to theatres for briefing, a nurse comes running down the corridor to tell me that the patient had been fully anti-coagulated the night before because the surgeons had forgotten to un-prescribe the medication that thinned her blood.

If nobody had stopped us before we gave her the epidural, she would have bled into her spine and become paralyzed even before the surgeons opened her up, and that would have been even worse because had she bled, we wouldn’t have been able to stop it. It’s hard as a medical student to know your place and when to speak up, since you’re surrounded by professionals.

So when you see something like a full therapeutic dose of anti-coagulants on the patient’s medication list, you don’t want to question it because surely everyone above you knows what they are doing? The consultant I was working with told me there have been stories of medical students not speaking up when surgeons have started operating on the wrong side and things like that.

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16. Can I Get A Do-Over?

Medical student here. I was watching a knee operation when the surgeon suddenly stopped and looked towards the staff. His face was absolutely shocked. Then he asks, "This is the wrong knee, isn't it?" Basically, he was told to operate on the wrong knee. Halfway through the job, he realized it was too "good-looking" to be the knee that needed the operation.

Luckily there was no permanent damage done; the team re-knit everything together and rescheduled the surgery.

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17. Forgive And Forget

When I was a kid, I often had surgeries to treat my genetic condition called osteochondromatosis. My surgeon came highly recommended, and although he didn’t have the best bedside manner, he was very good at his job. I went in once to get some plates put in both knees to correct the bowing growth and also to have a bone spur removed from my left foot.

Surgery went well, I’m put in recovery, and my parents come see me. My mom, however, notices something strange. “Weren’t you supposed to do both knees?” She asked my surgeon. I don’t know what his response was, as I was in dreamland, but I gather he was horrified. He’d done my right knee and my left foot...but had literally forgotten to do my left knee, which lead to me having to undergo two more surgeries than I would have.

He overall was a good surgeon. Still kind of upset about how he sort of misled us on the possibility of me developing cancer, though, but that's another story.

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18. Down To The Bone

I was the patient, but I was close with my surgeon and his assistant. I was in an ATV accident and shattered my humerus. About five months later, my orthopedic surgeon decided to insert a plate, screws, and cables. Two months before, I had a bone graft to try to repair it so I wouldn’t have to have hardware for the rest of my life, but it didn’t take like my doctor wanted.

I had been in a sling and splinted from shoulder to fingers for this entire time. Surgery goes well, and I start to regain muscle. I go in for a check-up about three months after starting physiotherapy and they do X-rays. My surgeon comes in and we’re looking at the X-rays...and that's when he freezes. He points to the X-ray and tells me that I need a third surgery to repair my arm.

Due to the atrophy, he wasn’t able to extend my arm during the plate placement to test it to make sure it was high enough. Turns out, the placement was too low and as I was extending my arm, it was knocking the plate out of the bone. I cried when he told me because I just couldn’t stand the thought of going through that pain again.

He apologized multiple times and told me he was there if I needed anything or had questions. My mom was friends with his assistant, and this woman confessed that after I left the surgeon went to his office and cried because he didn’t want me to have to go through the surgery and healing all over again either. He referred me to another surgeon, and the surgery went well to move the plate and add another one.

I saw my original doctor a few months ago, and he saw my updated hardware for the first time. He cried when I told him my life was pretty much back to normal.

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19. Sixth Sense

Surgical ward nurse here. The worst I’ve seen was a guy who managed to get to the operating theatre for an inguinal hernia repair, but had completely forgotten to disclose his medical history, and no doctor or nurse had bothered to ask. He was otherwise a young, fit, and healthy guy, so no recent blood work had been done either.

Within a few minutes of returning to the ward, his surgical incision was starting to fill. It almost looked like an IV drip had tissued and his lower abdomen was filling with the IV fluids. But of course, no one put any fluids down there. I was still a grad then, but I’d seen enough post-op hernias to know something wasn’t right.

I called the on-call doctor, who at the time was only a medically trained junior. He took a cursory glance at it, told me he wasn’t a surgeon, and said he had another real emergency to go to on another floor, but that he would come back to check on it after that. I just knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. So I started an FBI-level interrogation of the patient.

I asked if there was something he might have forgotten to tell the doctors. No judgments etc., but I needed his 100% honesty. He then admitted that he had a condition called “thrombocytopenia,” but he didn’t know what it was and was too afraid to bring it up. He also just assumed the doctors somehow knew or could tell when they looked at him.

Basically, the condition would completely affect his bleeding. I called the other doctor back immediately and told him that with or without him, my next call would be to transfer the patient immediately to our department of emergency. The doctor told me to do what I needed to. Thankfully, we caught it quite quickly, and the patient only needed a couple of bags of blood and some medication to restore normal bleeding and clotting.

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20. Try, Try Again

I haven't worked in a surgical setting, but I did work as a fire fighter and EMT for eight years. The worst mistake I witnessed was when a paramedic delayed the transport of a critical patient by 40 minutes because they couldn’t intubate the patient—the patient’s airway was compromised due to a headfirst fall off the rafter of a garage he was building.

We had a secondary option for airway protection called an igel, which is very easy to insert and should have been resorted to due to the patient’s condition. Unfortunately, the paramedic chose to attempt the tube intubation six times (our county protocols only allow two attempts) before finally letting another paramedic who had arrived on scene make an attempt.

This paramedic was also unsuccessful and resorted to the igel immediately. No idea if the patient made it or not unfortunately, but the paramedic got in big trouble over this call.

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21. The Bad Doctors

A long time ago, I worked for a law office as an administrative assistant. The office represented doctors who were going in front of a medical board to defend their licenses when they were accused of violating medical conduct. There were surgeons who routinely left items in their patients, over and over again, who kept getting let off.

There was a doctor who was forging paperwork for parents to show that they provided services to their kids when they were never provided, which resulted in innocent people dying. There were doctors who were using their medical knowledge to poison family members. I obviously can't go into any detail. But that stuff was terrifying.

Most of them kept their licenses and faced no recourse besides losing a little money in a malpractice suit and getting their malpractice insurance raised and occasionally paying a fine to keep their license. There are a lot of good doctors out there, but these were not them.

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22. Murphy’s Law

I’m a surgery resident. For the non-medical people, I’m a doctor who's in the middle of a 5-8 year surgery training after medical school. This was not my mistake, but a mistake of a mentor of mine who I consider one of the best surgeons in terms of surgical technique, warm bedside manner, and as a teacher. A healthy young patient with acute appendicitis was booked for an appendectomy.

This is a minimally-invasive operation commonly performed every day for removing the appendix through three small incisions, followed by placing special ports through the incisions to allow the instruments to go in your belly. Before placing the ports, we inflate your belly with CO2 like a balloon to make space for the ports.

Each of these ports has a pointy javelin-looking thing so it can enter the abdomen. The first one goes around your belly button. The second goes somewhere below the belly button. The third one goes somewhere on your left side of the belly. In my mentor's case, the first port went in smooth, but upon placement of the second port, the javelin point went through into an artery, and also into the vein underneath it.

Vascular Surgery was called in for an emergency. The abdomen was opened up, and the vascular team tried to repair the injury. The patient coded from massive blood loss and eventually passed after many hours of CPR, resuscitation, and transfusion. The loss affected everyone in the Surgery department, not just my mentor. It was devastating...

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23. The Nick

I’m not a surgeon, but I can tell you about one. My mother-in-law had a bad fall while on vacation in Florida and had to have hip surgery. During the surgery, they nicked her bowels without realizing it—until almost two days later when she started complaining of abdomen pain and her blood pressure started dropping. The worst came true.

By then she was already septic, went into a coma, and they couldn’t save her. The hospital declared her passing was from natural causes. We only know otherwise because my husband’s family hired someone to do an autopsy before they cremated her body.

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24. You Had One Job

I’m an operating room nurse. We were doing an operation for a patient with rectal cancer where we were going to remove the cancerous part, close it up, and the patient then would have a colostomy for the rest of their life. This procedure was done robotically, and the cancerous tissue was detached but not immediately removed, so I went to lunch.

When I came back, though, I noticed there were no specimens on my table of the cancerous tissue. Meanwhile, the patient was already closed and minutes away from being extubated—even though we hadn’t yet removed the cancer. The surgeon had to return to the OR, reopen the patient, and actually remove the specimen this time. Big deal! But luckily no real harm to the patient.

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25. The Blame Game

I’m a surgeon, but this one is not a personal experience. Instead, it’s a case that stuck with me. So, a surgeon amputated the healthy leg of a 52-year-old instead of the other diseased leg. He was already cutting the wrong leg when a nurse looked through the patient’s file and stopped the procedure, informing him that he had been working on the wrong leg.

Apparently, the surgeon denied responsibility for the error and shifted it to other staff members involved in the surgery, since the blackboard in the operating room, the operating room schedule, and the hospital computer all listed the wrong leg for amputation. Also, the wrong leg had also been prepared for surgery prior to the doctor’s arrival.

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26. Your Own Worst Enemy

My brother is a surgeon. He once told me about a patient who should've just died in his bed. The guy had extremely acute stomachache and neighbors called the ambulance because they couldn't handle his screams. His whole family were religious fanatics, and claimed the poor guy had visions of God. The doctors had to call the authorities, who applied force to take him to the hospital.

If they had come just a few hours later, the guy would've just perished in agony. My brother said that he never saw someone's appendix in such a terrible state; it was near exploding. In a few weeks after the operation he made full recovery—but then it took an even darker turn. He hanged himself because his family pressured him for not being able to become a new prophet.

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27. Sweat It Out

I'm a medical student. I was watching a Caesarean birth, and the first surgeon wore his mask just on his mouth, not covering his nose. He was a big name there, so no one said anything—it was strange, sure, but not the strangest thing I'd ever seen. But when it was the moment to stitch everything up after the baby was born, the mother had internal bleeding.

It wasn’t massive, but at the same time no one could say where the blood was coming from. The surgeon is now a bit troubled and starts to sweat, literally. Well, his mask doesn't cover his nose, so I swear I see a lot of drops of his freaking sweat falling into the woman’s abdomen. I pointed it out silently to the second surgeon, who then put the man's mask in place. The surgery ended well, thank God.

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28. The Bionic Woman

I was a medical student at the time, so I was just there to observe. It was an elderly lady with dementia who was in for an above knee amputation. After cutting through her tissue to expose her femur, the surgeon started with the bone saw, and within a few seconds started cursing and everyone around him seemed perplexed and worried.

Turns out, the patient had a rod in her femur that the surgeon did not know about. A few other surgeons came rushing in, and a few minutes later they all figured it out eventually with a mallet and lots of pounding. I had a lot of questions, but I was not in the right place to ask with all the tension in there! I guess it was a learning experience.

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29. Breathe Easy

I was the patient in this story. When I was between 7 and 9, I had my first port put in, which is an IV catheter attached to the main vessels in my heart. When I woke up, I knew something was wrong. My lungs were horrible already, but this was way worse. I couldn't breathe and I was in so much pain. The doctor, however, thought I was just being a kid and not handling the pain very well.

My nurse knew me pretty well, though, and after me crying and struggling to breathe for a few hours, she convinced the doctor I didn't normally act like that and that something was really wrong. He ordered an X-ray and we found out that the surgeon had accidentally sliced my lung when he was putting the port in, and my lung had collapsed.

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30. From Bad To Worse

I had a shoulder replacement, and one of the doctors nicked an artery. They were panicking to try and find the nick, doing everything in their power. Yet whenever they saw it, it filled with blood. At some point, he got sight of it and jabbed at it with the clamps and finally got it. Problem was, there was a cluster of nerves directly behind the artery.

So after they fixed up the nick, they had to go through the process of checking if they damaged the nerves and if my fingers still worked. Thankfully, they did. The doctor tells me he'll be telling that story to his students for years.

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31. Anger Management

I was standing in on a total hip replacement with the most innocent, charming, polite surgeon. Then, stuff hit the fan and the screw wasn’t holding and his tool broke. He so elegantly says an entire string of curse words. Then he stops and stares in silence for about five minutes. After that, the rest of the surgery was “hand me the [bleeping] scalpel or hand me the [bleeping] forceps.” Every time I saw him after, I just chuckled a bit.

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32. Don’t Call It A Comeback

I had kidney operation when I was about a year or two old. The kind surgeon managed to stitch me up with a 2cm-long piece of tube still inside of me. When they realized, it was a bit too late. I was screened annually to see if the tube inside of me didn't cause any problems, which it did not for over a decade. Fast-forward to me being 14 or 15.

I was peeing when I suddenly saw something slowly slithering out of me. My first thought was that it was a parasite of some sort, and I freaked the heck out. Doctors, please search your patients thoroughly before stitching them up. Thank you.

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33. Use Your Head

When I was in school, I had an instructor who took a job as Vice President of patient care at a big American hospital. She said there was a patient who had been on the unit for a year and the hospital was footing the bill. When they told her why, it was just about the worst thing I’ve heard. He was in for a brain surgery and they had removed a large section of his skull to access the brain.

Then they dropped it on the floor. They tried to clean it up and they apparently gave him lots of post-operative antibiotics, but he inevitably developed encephalitis or meningitis or well, probably an infection of the whole head.

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34. Down The Tubes

The nurse placed a feeding tube into a comatose ICU patient. Basically, it was a tube through the nose and down to the stomach so the patient can eat while in a coma. However, the nurse started the tube feed before getting an X-ray to confirm the appropriate placement. Well, the tube was in the wrong place. Due to some major misfortune, the tube ended up on the brain, and killed the patient.

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35. A Dressing Down

A nurse went to change a surgical dressing per an order from the doctor, but misunderstood the order for how to dress it. Rather than ask questions after removing the surgical cover dressing, she cut the patient's stitches in a midline abdominal incision and packed the wound with wet gauze…opening a brand new surgical wound and causing it to split open to the fat layer.

She then re-covered the wound with dressing, which the night shift nurse didn't check, because the dressing wasn't ordered to be changed at night and there was no reason to look beneath it. We didn’t notice until the next night either, because the next day shift nurse was busy addressing emergencies and ran out of time to change it. So the night shift nurse stepped up and found the wound completely gaping.

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36. Double The Fun

I saw a co-worker do this, but I had no hand in it, thank God. We make IVs for hospital patients. Well, she read the label of the IV wrong and put double the morphine in half of the amount the bag should have been. No one caught it along the way (tech, pharmacist, nurse) and it was hung and given to the patient. No one got fired, but everyone got talked to.

Surgeon mistakeUnsplash

37. An Oldie But A Goodie

I recently had surgery. When I woke up from my vertical sleeve gastrectomy, the surgeon explained that the stapling instrument had failed and he had to close my stomach with stitches. I’m very grateful that my surgeon handled the situation and was honest about it. After all, it wasn’t so much his mistake as it was an equipment malfunction.

However, my husband, who was waiting for the “she’s all good” call from the surgeon, wondered why it didn’t come until like 90 minutes after it was supposed to. The operation was successful and resulted in a functioning gastric sleeve—even if it is old-fashioned.

Surgeon mistakePexels

38. Fuzzy Friend

I was working in an animal research lab, and my job was to make incisions and insert catheters into the hearts of rabbits through the carotid artery. I had a defective catheter with a sharp tip, and somehow I managed to have the catheter exit the carotid somewhere in the chest cavity of the rabbit. I had to step aside for a more experienced surgeon to take over from there because my confidence was shaken.

Luckily she was able to save the rabbit! For context, the research I was working on was for finding a cure to a disease called infective endocarditis. It’s basically where bacteria get into your bloodstream and attach to damaged areas of your heart. It’s extremely serious; almost half of all people who contract it pass, and it harms thousands of Americans each year.

Animal research in the US is taken extremely seriously, and the process to get approval for even the simplest experiments using animals is extremely rigorous. Our rabbits were fully anesthetized during the procedure, given pain medication for post-op, and treated with the highest standards of ethical care pre and post-op.

Please, before you judge, remember that animal research has saved hundreds of millions of human lives. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the animals that help us to better humanity, and it took me a while to get over that slip up that day.

Surgeon mistakePexels

39. Double And Triple Check

I was a scrub nurse for decades. My worst moment ever was being told we had left an instrument inside a patient. Now, that is our job—count, account, count again, account again and repeat. I had always prided myself on knowing exactly where all my instruments were at all times. Still, you have to realize that we can have hundreds of items out, but at the end of a case we go through the trays again and double, triple check.

So where the bloody heck had it come from? Even our sterilizing services department hadn't alerted us that anything was missing, so what the heck? Turns out, the patient hadn't been well post-operation and had a barium X-ray. Barium was put into the bowel through a tube, and the tube was then left in place, clamped, and the clamp placed on the abdomen.

Cover said patient with a sheet while the X-ray was done and HELLO one clamp showing on X-Ray. I saw the film and it was scary, but the surgeon and I said straight away it wasn't one of our surgical instruments, and if they had just showed us straight away we could have avoided the panic. A day we never, ever forgot.

Surgeon mistakePexels

40. After Me, The Deluge

I have a fun one. Many years ago I was working in surgical research. We operated on pigs because they are the closest things to humans. The experiment was investigating hemorrhagic shock and bandages/treatments to deal with that. Like, if you get shot in the femoral artery, what can stop you from bleeding out in seconds?

We tested quick clot bandages and synthetic blood, etc. So we dissect out the femoral artery on this fully intubated anesthetized pig. Usually the experimental procedure is: cut the femoral artery, wait 30 seconds, and then apply the quick clot bandages. Except this time we did a slightly different procedure. Instead of a full cut that bleeds into a big pool, we took out a small hole-punch.

It was like a putting your thumb on a garden hose. Total bloodbath in the surgical theatre. One poor guy looked like Carrie, covered in pig blood. Lesson learned. Cover the wound with a bucket before cutting.

Surgeon mistakeUnsplash

41. A Hard Lesson

My dad is a vet and I’ve helped him on many farm calls. One time we were pulling a calf out of a cow that refused to push for God knows what reason. Then suddenly we heard a nasty POP and saw the cow’s hip drop. I am not sure exactly what went wrong, but I do know they had to put that cow down. After we left, my dad had to look at me and give me a hard lesson on accepting failure.

You can hate failure, it can make you feel not good enough, and it can tear you up inside and crush you. And nobody can tell you it wasn’t your fault or can make you feel better about it. But at the end of the day, life goes on. And all you can really do is accept it and keep moving forward. Although I didn’t follow my dad into the medical field, I do remember those words.

Surgeon mistakeShutterstock

42. Hear No Evil

I’m an emergency room doctor. Many years ago while trying to straighten out some fractured forearm bones, I managed to dislocate the wrist. The patient was very likely headed to surgery anyway, but I tried so hard that I made it worse. I've also given activated charcoal to an overdose patient that then progressed to needing intubation, which is much more difficult to do when everything in the back of the throat is pitch black.

I once saw a kid with a runny nose the night before his parents had tickets to fly to Disney. Silly me, I examined his ears. Although he had no ear symptoms, he did have a bright blue piece of plastic in his ear. Therefore, I felt obligated to get it out. Kid is not cooperative. Sedation. Lack of success (multiple doctors tried).

In this situation, we usually discharge to go to a different clinic the next day, but they had morning plane tickets. I don't recall if they rescheduled their plane tickets or went to Disney with asymptomatic ear plastic, but after hours and hours of fruitlessly messing around with me, I feel I probably ruined their Disney trip either way.

Surgeon mistakePexels

43. Learning Curve

I spent 13 years in practice as a surgeon. Thus far I myself haven’t had any major operative screw-ups. However, everyone who is a surgeon gets their training at some kind of academic medical center. The mentors at these places tend to be of two varieties. Type 1: The highly competent role models, and Type 2: Surgeons just barely competent enough to stay in practice.

The mistakes of Type 2 surgeons are frequently reviewed publicly for educational purposes by the trainees who also work at the same facility, all so they can call Type 1s for rescue help during the operation. By far the most common mistake made by Type 2 surgeons is doing operations on patients who are beyond all hope of recovery.

This frequently results in suffering for everyone involved, and many times a faster end for the patient with a terminal illness. A good example would be attempting to excise large, irremovable metastatic cancers wrapped around sensitive vital structures. Some Type 2 surgeons make careless mistakes, like how I once saw a cancer surgeon use the ultrasonic dissector to accidentally divide the external iliac artery.

Lots of times, bowel injuries are missed and the patient has to go back to surgery for a resection or repair. That’s super common because the bowel is pretty thin and fragile, and partial thickness tears can breakdown in unhealthy patients with a lot of previous surgery and lots of adhesions. Even great surgeons get leaks once in a while for all kinds of reasons, but most commonly overconfidence in a really sick patient’s ability to heal after a technically proficient surgery.

Sometimes timing an operation is the most critical thing—having good enough blood pressure, heart rate, oxygenation, and nutrition are just as if not more important for some types of surgery where functional organs are reconstructed rather than just being removed. There are some common sayings among surgeons, and one of these is, “it takes five years to learn how to operate, 10 years to learn when to operate, and a lifetime to learn when not to operate.”

Surgeon mistakePexels

44. Heavy Is The Head

While I was performing a hip replacement, I got into the wrong muscle and damaged the patient's femoral nerve. They now have a permanent paralysis of their quad as a result. Mistakes like this can be hard to talk about, believe me. Every time you put on the gown and gloves, there is a small, needling part of the back of your mind reminding you that there's a real chance you may be about to ruin someone's life.

It may not be this time, it may not happen in any of the 12 other surgeries you have scheduled this week, or the 50 this month, or the 50 next month, or the 50 the following month…but it will happen. Major, life-altering mistakes are extremely rare, but with enough time and a big enough sample size, rare things happen all the time.

That's the reality of being a surgeon. People put their life and well being in your hands, and at some point you are going to betray that trust and hurt someone. It is going to happen. There is no amount of preparation or care that can prevent it—if you chose this life, you have chosen a life where at some point you are going to lie sleepless in bed at night wondering, "I wonder how they would be doing now if they'd never had the misfortune of meeting me?"

Surgeon mistakePexels

45. A Dog’s Life

Veterinarian here, and we do quite a few surgeries. “Mistakes” likely happen all the time, from nicked blood vessels to skin or organ tears. In the veterinary world, I’ve certainly heard stories of male animals having an abdominal incision during a neuter, since someone thought it was a female for a spay. Wrong limbs can also be amputated.

Surgical instruments and sponges or gauze can be “forgotten” in patients. There are many surgical checklists to help prevent these mistakes, and I am sure it is even more developed in human medicine. Fortunately for me, the biggest surgical mistake is probably a suture slipping when I was removing an organ, which gave some internal bleeding.

Surgeon mistakePexels

46. Whoopsie Daisy

I’m not the surgeon, but I am a nurse in a hospital. Without going into toooo much detail, I had a patient who bled into her abdomen for 10 minutes during surgery without anyone noticing. The surgeon was focused on fixing a smaller bleed in another location.

Surgeon mistakePexels

47. Butterfly Effect

I’m a patient, but I’ll tell you my story. I went in for an emergency appendectomy. When I woke up, I could never go #2. Turns out, the surgeon injured a nerve that caused my bowel to be paralyzed. I was on five laxatives a day for several years with no relief. My family doctor told me I’d be lucky if I could one day go to the bathroom once a week.

Surgeon mistakeUnsplash

48. A Leg Down

My grandfather’s friend needed to have his leg amputated. Somewhere between him leaving the hospital bed to go into surgery and coming back out, someone had mislabelled the leg and they amputated the wrong leg. He went back into surgery three days later—he’s very old and they were worried about him going under once let alone twice—and they removed the other (correct) leg.

This is one of those stories that I couldn’t believe until I actually met the guy and realized he really does have both legs amputated, for no good reason other than negligence.

Surgeon mistakePexels

49. See For Yourself

My mom told me the story of how I had to go to surgery after I accidentally cut my eye open with a stick and my doctor was trying to fix my pupil. Apparently, my pupil was in the shape of a football and he tried to make it “normal,” but instead he messed up and it made my vision worse. Now because of that, my vision is 20/100 in my left eye and it can’t be fixed.

Surgeon mistakePexels

50. Didn’t Get The Memo

After my heart operation where they went in through my femoral artery, they forgot to tell anyone outside the theatre that they had given me anticoagulants. Long story short, when I got back to the ward, my mom and dad came to visit and see how I was doing—only to walk into the room from hell. I had two doctors and two nurses around me, caked in blood with the back wall of the room dripping with it.

I should have been in this tourniquet thing for like 12 hours minimum after surgery, but they removed it and asked me to get up and move around after four hours. Suffice to say, it wasn't pretty and the first nurse (the one who removed it) went absolutely white. No one answered the emergency buzzer for about 10-15 minutes to help her, either.

She just kept panicking and saying, "You are bleeding out!" to me. Oddly, I was completely calm and kept offering her advice. I think it was the shock, since I tend to get very analytical instead of scared. I should also mention that the advice I gave was rubbish: "Would you like me to hold that while you go and get some help?" She met this with, "You'll be dead before I get back." "Oh ok, best for you to hold it then."

Surgeon mistakeShutterstock

51. A Fly On The Wall

I’m not a surgeon, but I had a screw put in to hold together a fracture in my wrist. At the last moment before surgery, the anesthetist told me I could have the surgery with a local rather than general anesthetic as planned. So I let her make the call for me to be awake. That’s how I heard everything the doctor didn’t want me to hear.

See, he didn’t realize I wasn’t under, and it was one eye-opening experience. During the drilling, my surgeon started complaining at length about why he hates the drill he's using and how it's inferior to the other type of brand. It was apparently the only one he could find at the time and he didn't want to reschedule. So not great so far.

Once the screw is in, the surgeon says to close up. Someone asked if the screw should protrude as much as it was, to which he responded, "No, but we can get away with it, and you never want to take a screw out and put another in, because it will wear out the bone.” Then silence for about 10 seconds while I feel them shifting my wrist around, followed by, "Actually we better put a smaller screw in."

When I was in recovery, the surgeon was surprised how quickly I woke up and had a slight look of surprise when I told him I was only under local. Next thing he said was, "Surgery went well..."

Surgeon mistakeShutterstock

52. Spick And Span

I’m a surgical tech, and we were doing a skin graft on a burn patient. In those types of surgeries, you have two different operative sites if you're taking the skin graft from the patient and not using cadaver skin. This means I have two different surgical teams going and only one me bouncing back and forth and assisting both the teams.

This was also at a university hospital, meaning I have attending surgeons, residents, and medical students all working alongside. If you work in surgery, you know that unless you're the tech, YOU DO NOT TOUCH THEIR TABLE OR ANYTHING ON IT. As we're doing the skin harvest, you have to keep the skin moist until it's ready to be transplanted on the site.

I wrap mine in damp sponges and keep it on my table. I bet you can see where this is going. I turn back to my table and the sponge WITH THE SKIN IN IT is gone. I look everywhere and finally stop everyone from working to ask who has the damp sponge that was on my table. A resident told me my table was "too cluttered" and he threw the sponge in the trash. I saw red.

I've never had to scold a doctor so bad in my life. Not only did he touch my table, he threw away an item that needs to be accounted for after surgery, and it had specimen in it. Since the skin was no longer sterile, we had to use cadaver skin, and you know who pays for that? The PATIENT. So, a note to all the baby docs, please don't touch your scrub's table unless we okay it.

Surgeon mistakePexels

Sources: Reddit,

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