Retractors Left Behind After Surgery

Updated on: 2/26/2019

"Large-cavity" surgery cases involving the chest, stomach and pelvis can require the use of between 250 to 300 instruments on average. Longer surgeries may use more than 600 instruments.  That’s a lot of instruments to keep track of.  And at least 5,00 surgical patients each year have a surgical object accidentally left inside them when the procedure is finished.  Oddly enough, sometimes large instruments such as retractors often remain in the patient once they are sewn up.  Although this type of medical mistake is rare, it does happen and can cause excruciating pain for the patients.

Yes, this kind of medical malpractice happens at Seattle-area hospitals such as Swedish Medical Center, Virginia Mason Hospital, Harborview Medical Center, UW Medical Center, and Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center).

retractor left behind after surgeryPatients with retained surgical items (RSI) such as retractors often complain about pain for months or even years before doctors finally perform an x-ray, MRI, ultra-sound or some other test that reveals that something was left behind after their surgery.

The Journal of Radiology calls the leaving behind of surgical objects in patients a “highly underestimated problem.”

When a retractor is left behind it can do serious damage to the tissue and organs in the vicinity.  Every time the patient moves or bends over the retractor is poking or penetrating the surrounding tissue.

The incidence of left-behind surgical instruments in has been studied and estimates vary from about one in 1,000 operations to one in 18,000.  In a study reported at the 2010 Annual Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons in Washington, DC, researchers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill noted that their “preliminary data agrees with the previously reported incidence of retained surgical items.”

No Thing Left Behind® is a voluntary surgical patient safety initiative started in 2004 to understand why retained surgical items are such a persistent problem and to develop practices to ensure RSI become a “never happen event”.  Hospitals have voluntarily participated with data sharing, development, and implementation of safer multidisciplinary practices. In spite of the specific operative practice of counting, which is designed to minimize the chance of retention, RSI cases still occur.

Sadly the public never hears about most of these retained surgical item (RSI) cases, especially when a large object such as a retractor is involved, because the settlement agreements typically bind the victim to silence due to confidentiality. 

Because Davis Law Group is a Seattle medical malpractice law firm we have knowledge of retractors being left behind in Seattle-area hospitals. 

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