The life-threatening danger when a surgeon or nurse leaves a surgical towel or sponge in your body


These never/sentinel events happen more often that you'd think and can lead to a deadline infection

October 12, 2018

Many medical malpractice cases require careful review, study, and investigation to determine what went wrong and whether a doctor, hospital, or nurse was negligent. In some cases, though, it’s immediately possible for an experienced medical malpractice attorney to make that call.

When a patient goes to surgery and a disposable medical supply or other unintended object is left inside his or her body, it is always a grave medical mistake and malpractice. This happens more often than you might expect.

This week, a new client called Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, to talk to us about what happened to him. He had a complex aortic aneurysm that required surgery and selected a well-known hospital and surgeon in the Texas Medical Center.

Once this patient was fully awake from surgery and anesthesia, he started complaining of intense abdominal pain and a hard, tight abdomen. They kept him in the hospital for about five days and did multiple diagnostic radiology images to try to figure out why he was having so much pain. The surgeon, physicians, and nurses never came up with an answer to that question and proceeded to discharge him home.

About a month after his initial surgery, this gentleman started running a very high fever and got so sick that he returned to a different hospital, where he was admitted over concerns for an infection. Physicians at that hospital did a thorough workup and finally figured out why he was having persistent abdominal pain.

The surgical team at the major hospital in the Texas Medical Center left a 2 foot x 1 foot surgical towel in his abdomen.

Never events & sentinel events

As a former hospital administrator, I know that leaving a surgical towel inside the patient’s body is a “never event.” The Joint Commission, and accrediting organization for hospitals, uses another phrase, calling it a “sentinel event.”

The Joint Commission says that the unintended retention of foreign objects or retained surgical items after the surgery can cause death or significant physical and emotional harm to patients who survive. Yet, accredited hospitals still struggle with this problem and it remains one of the top reported sentinel events.

Any sentinel event is so dangerous and significant that hospitals are required to conduct a thorough root cause analysis to identify what failures occurred to allow it to happen, and how such mistakes can be avoided in the future.

Why does operating room staff leave unintended objects inside patients?

My conclusions as an experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney match those of The Joint Commission in terms of why these operating room mistakes continue to happen:

· The absence of policies and procedures.

 ·Failure to comply with existing policies and procedures. I have not yet come across a hospital that does not have a policy and procedure requiring operating room staff to conduct a count of needles, sponges, towels, and other supplies before the patient is closed up. There are many examples, like this current case, where operating room staff did not follow those policies and procedures.

· Problem with lower-level staff being too intimidated by surgeons and physicians to speak up.

· Failure in communication with physicians.

· Failure of staff to communicate relevant patient information.

· Inadequate or incomplete education of staff. Hospital leaders are responsible for making sure that their staff is properly educated on preventing this type of medical error. Plus, they must make their expectations clear by holding healthcare providers accountable when this type of sentinel event occurs.

We are here to help

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or even died because of poor medical, surgical, or hospital care, then the experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, are here to help. Click here to send us a confidential email via our “Contact Us” form or call us at 281-580-8800.

All consultations are free, and, because we only represent clients on a contingency fee, you will owe us nothing unless we win your case. We handle cases in the Houston area and all over Texas. We are currently working on medical malpractice lawsuits in Houston, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Conroe, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Bryan/College Station, and Waco.


Robert Painter is a medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. A member of the board of directors of the Houston Bar Association, he was honored, in 2018, by H Texas as one of Houston’s top lawyers. Also, in 2018, the Better Business Bureau recognized Painter Law Firm PLLC with its Award of Distinction.

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is a medical malpractice lawyer at Painter Law Firm PLLC.


Is misdiagnosis medical malpractice in Texas?

Painter Law Firm's frequently asked question (FAQ) series [...]

read more

Texas court shoots down patient's argument that physician fraudulent concealment should extend statute of limitations

Fort Worth Court of Appeals opinion shows why it's wise to hire a medical malpractice attorney quickly [...]

read more


Discuss your case with an attorney.

Copyright ©2019 Painter Law Firm. All rights reserved.