Explained very simply, they put things inside the patient and forget to take them out.

Operations are often complex, involving a surprising number of tools and other objects used in the body temporarily. Losing track of one or more of these objects, accidentally leaving them in the patient after the operation, is one of the most common surgical errors.

Counting what goes in and what comes out

A fluid drain, a clamp used to hold things together or a retractor to keep tissues out of the way can all become retained surgical bodies (RSB).

It happens so often that surgical teams count what goes into a patient and what comes out. Ideally, the numbers should make sense after the operation. But operations can last many hours and involve staff rotating in shifts. Emergencies can throw counting clamps into a second-place priority.

Sponges are the objects most often left in patients as RSBs, but nobody knows exactly how often. Unless a patient has medical problems that require reopening the patient, nobody may ever know about the error. X-rays or ultrasounds may or may not reveal something like a sponge.

Sponges and other objects often lead to other problems

A recent malpractice case revealed the story of one woman who underwent bypass surgery at the University of Louisville Hospital in 2011. She left the hospital with nobody realizing the surgical team had left an 18-inch by 18-inch sponge inside her.

Because the surgeon accidentally cut a vein that drains one of the kidneys, the surgery became difficult. When one nurse went to lunch, she failed to follow protocol by doing a “lunch count” of surgical objects in the patient.

A doctor discovered sponge four years later due to complications it causes, but because of what appears to be possible miscommunication, the sponge stayed in for another 20 months until it blocked her intestine. Eventually, one of her legs had to amputated.

Through a spokesman, the hospital said it would appeal the large jury award, adding “Safety is always a top priority and, in the eight years since this case began, we have continually enhanced our processes and continue to look for additional opportunities for improvement.”