Medical malpractice cases are uncommon. The vast majority of the 30 million surgeries performed in the US every year go off without a hitch, but botched operations and diagnoses do happen, and when they do, they can be devastating to patients and their families.
There are any number of examples of medical malpractice – some of them are freak accidents, and others are totally preventable. Often, when something goes horribly awry, it’s as simple as a doctor operating on the wrong one in a pair, like a leg or kidney. Sometimes information is transcribed wrong, or a chart is confused with a similar patient. Mistakes do happen, and when they do, lawyers are called and settlements agreed upon.
But sometimes a mistake is so sloppy, craven, or lazy that it defies any obvious explanation other than, “The doctor just wasn’t paying enough attention.” Huge medical instruments are left in patients, nurses don’t take the time to wash their hands, nobody checks on a person in an ER, and in one tragic case, a girl gets organs that are incompatible with her blood type.
Here are some of the worst medical malpractices cases in history. Each and every one is a cautionary tale for asking questions at the doctor and confirming that all your medical information is accurate.
Yale-New Haven Medical Center surgeons operated on Deborah Craven in May 2015, removing potentially cancerous portions of one of her ribs. Except instead they removed a different rib altogether and Craven claims they lied to her, trying to cover up the mistake before rushing her back into surgery the same day to correct it. She sued the hospital and many of the surgeons, claiming negligence.
Providence’s Rhode Island Hospital didn’t just botch brain surgery on one patient, three doctors there botched it on three patients – all in the same way. In 2007, the hospital was fined $50,000 for the third instance of brain surgery being performed on the wrong side of a patient’s brain. Astonishingly, two of the patients were fine, but the other died, prompting an investigation and the fine.
Rhode Island Hospital failed another patient, head trauma victim Carl Beauchamp, in 2009. Beauchamp was admitted after a head injury, and the staff essentially did everything wrong after that, misdiagnosing him, failing to check on him, neglecting to notice his condition worsening, and not performing necessary exams. Beauchamp was left with debilitating brain damage as a result, and in 2015, his family won an eight-figure judgement against the notorious hospital.
In 1999, bodybuilder and former Mr. Mexico Alexander Baez fell victim to a scam perpetrated by a fake doctor when he went in for pectoral implants – and came out with female breast implants. The fake doctor, Reinaldo Silvestre (pictured), had apparently butchered a number of other patients before police finally caught up with him and he was ordered to pay out nearly $5 million.
The term “ anesthesia awareness” doesn’t do the nightmare of waking up during surgery justice. While rare, it does happen in about one to two out of every 1,000 patients who are given a general sedative to knock them out during surgery. Carol Weihrer was one such patient, waking up while having her eye operated on, hearing surgeons say things like “Cut deeper” and “Pull harder.” She felt no pain, since the sedative and pain-blocking drugs are different, but she was left with PTSD and an inability to sleep horizontally. She sued the hospital and won an undisclosed judgement.
Diabetic construction worker Willie King went into the hospital to have his left leg removed below the knee, as it was becoming gangrenous. But a chain of mistakes began almost immediately, as the scheduler wrote down that King was to lose his right leg. The mistake was never caught and doctors indeed removed the wrong leg. He later had the left leg removed at a different hospital, and received a total of $1.15 million in compensation after suing the original hospital.
The doctor who performed the original incorrect surgery on King struck again months later when he removed the toe of a woman without her consent. He was fined and suspended.
Arturo Iturralde, a 73-year-old Hawaii resident, was supposed to have fairly routine back surgery to insert two titanium rods into his spine to keep it stable. The surgeon found that the rods were missing from the surgical kit, so instead he inexplicably used a hacksaw to cut off the screwdriver’s shaft and inserted it into Iturralde to brace the spine. When the shaft broke just days later, Iturralde was left in agonizing pain. He needed three more surgeries and died within two years. The doctor and hospital were hit with a $5.6 million judgement.
Ordinary folks or pensioners on Medicare aren’t the only ones who are at risk of severe medical malpractice. Celebrities can fall into the cracks and become victims of negligence too. Best-selling novelist Olivia Goldsmith died of sedation complications during routine cosmetic surgery, and comedian Joan Rivers died as a result of a botched endoscopy and laryngoscopy during which dramatic changes in her vital signs went unnoticed by doctors for roughly 15 minutes.
In terms of bad things that can happen to you during an operation, being set on fire is pretty high on the list. According to the FDA, surgical fires only happen between 550 and 650 times a year, but they can have catastrophic consequences for both patients and medical staff. PatientJanice McCall was burned during an “accidental flash fire” in surgery and died a week later, while Enrique Ruiz received severe burns, allegedly after sparks from an electronic scalpel ignited his oxygen supply.
Doctors thought the intense pain Daryoush Mazarei complained of after surgery was all in his head. It turns out it was actually in his lower abdomen – because a ten-inch long retractor had been left in there two years earlier. The thing was actually poking out from under his ribs, but physicians were skeptical because of the rarity of devices being left inside patients (about 1,500 times out of 30 million surgeries every year). When the retractor showed up on a CT scan, Mazarei sued and had the device removed.
The tragic story of Jesica Santillan is a perfect example of the sheer number of things that can do wrong during surgery – from the complex to the simple. Jesica was 17 years old when she needed both a heart and double lung transplant. While the surgery itself was intensely difficult, what killed her was something that almost any medical professional should and could have caught. Her blood type was O, but she received organs from someone with type A blood, causing her antibodies to attack the new organs. She fell into a coma and died two weeks later.
Four-year-old Jesse Matlock was meant to have surgery on his right eye to keep it from wandering. Instead, his left eye was operated on by mistake, and the surgeon had just finished when she realized the mistake. She then operated on the right eye, and luckily the left eye showed no signs of long-term injury.
70-year-old Brit Graham Reeves made it through the Korean War, only to be killed decades later when doctors botched his kidney operation. His healthy kidney was removed instead of his failing one, and despite additional surgery and dialysis, he died five weeks later. The surgeons who screwed up the procedure had criminal charges against them dismissed after a two week trial.
Air Force veteran Benjamin Houghton went to his local VA hospital to remove his left testicle, as his doctors thought it might be cancerous. But the hospital removed the right one, leaving him unable to have the correct one removed instead. He and his family sued for roughly $200,000 in compensation.
Mother of two Kim Tutt was 34 years old and seemingly healthy when she got the worst news of her life after a routine dentist appointment: she had jaw cancer and would be dead in six months. She was told that she might get a few more months if she had a radical procedure that removed much of her lower jaw and replaced it with a bone from her leg.
Desperate for more time with her kids, Tutt had the surgery. Then she got another shock when she was told her biopsy had been contaminated and she never had cancer. Tutt has since had five more surgeries, lost nine teeth, and been permanently disfigured.
One of the most famous examples of surgery gone wrong happened to comedian Dana Carvey. The former Saturday Night Live cast member was suffering from severe chest pain and had three separate operations to unblock a coronary artery, but the pain continued. Subsequent testing found that the surgeon had bypassed the wrong artery, putting Carvey at extreme risk of a heart attack. The procedure was performed correctly by another doctor, and Carvey sued the first doctor, who settled.
Donald Church went into a Seattle hospital for surgery to remove a tumor in his abdomen. He left with a 13-inch long retractor still in his body. The device was removed shortly thereafter and Church suffered no ill effects. But he still won a nearly $100,000 judgement against the hospital, which had settled four other “left behind object” cases in the previous decade.
Not all medical malpractice happens at the hands of surgeons. Harvard medical student Paul Lozano committed suicide after a bizarre and malicious relationship with his therapist fell apart. Psychiatrist Margaret Bean-Bayog put Lozano through an experimental (and not at all scientifically vetted) treatment regimen where she tried to “reprogram” him into believing she was his mother to help him overcome childhood sexual abuse.
During an investigation, Bean-Bayog’s notes were found to detail graphic sexual encounters with a patient who matched Lozano’s description. The 28-year-old patient killed himself months after their sessions ended. Bean-Bayog gave up her medical license and paid out a $1 million settlement to his family.
A shattering tragedy was foisted upon expectant mother Kerry Higuera when she went into a Glendale, Arizona ER fearing she was undergoing a miscarriage. When a nurse came into her room and asked her if she was Kerry, she said yes. Then she was led to a scanner and given a CT scan to her abdomen – strictly against best practices for pregnant women. The hospital realized it had mixed Higuera up with another woman named Kerry of the same age. Higuera’s child was put at risk of stunted growth, tumors, and failure to thrive as a result of the mistake.
Badly injured in a skydiving accident, Josh Nahum was in the ICU for six weeks, but on the mend. Then he contracted a rare Gram-negative bacterial infection of his spinal fluid, causing extreme pressure around his brain and turning him into a quadriplegic before ultimately killing him two weeks later.
Most medical malpractice is accidental or caused by negligence, but occasionally, a doctor commits fraud that’s simply brazen. Oncologist Farid Fata admitted in court that he ran a scheme where he intentionally misdiagnosed people with cancer, then gave them expensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments – making a ton of money in the process. When he was finally busted, he’d given unnecessary infusions or injections to 553 patients and fraudulently billed over $150 million. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
67-year-old Joan Morris underwent successful surgery to have two brain aneurysms treated after falling and hitting her head. Then she was rushed into the ER and prepped for open-heart surgery that she didn’t need at all. An hour into the procedure, the intervention of Morris’s doctor saved her from a drastic operation she didn’t need, but 77-year-old Jane Morrison did.
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