Glenford Turner had surgery in 2013 at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Connecticut. Four years later, according to a new lawsuit, doctors discovered that a sharp metal surgical instrument had been accidentally left inside the Army veteran's body.
"It's perplexing to me how they could be so incompetent that a scalpel that really should only be on the exterior of your body not only goes into the body but then is sewn into the body," Turner's lawyer, Joel Faxon, tells NPR. "It's a level of incompetence that's almost incomprehensible."
The lawsuit alleges that a trainee surgeon performed the radical prostatectomy at VA Connecticut Healthcare System, West Haven Campus. "Subsequent to the surgery, [Turner] had unidentifiable abdominal pain at the time," Faxon says. "Nobody could ever really figure out what it was."
The object was discovered when Turner, now 61, went for MRI in 2017 for a separate medical issue. The magnet in the MRI machine "reacts to the scalpel in his abdomen, and you have to stop the procedure because he has all this pain," says Faxon. "The scalpel's moving around in there."
A separate court document describes the object as a "5 inch scalpel handle" — it's not clear whether the blade is attached to the handle, because neither Faxon nor Turner has had access to the object. It appears long, thin and pointed on an X-ray.
Turner then went through an additional surgery to remove the instrument.
The VA Connecticut did not provide specific comment on the lawsuit, stating: "VA does not typically comment on pending litigation."
According to Faxon, the plaintiff filed an administrative claim with the VA last June but has not received a formal response beside stating that it has been received. "We're told by the administrative arm of the VA that they're so understaffed and incapable of even looking at the claim that they couldn't do anything," he said, which prompted the federal lawsuit filed last week.
He expects the case to take some three years to reach a resolution and is hoping for a payment to Turner of more than $1 million. "I think something like this is so egregious, and the way the government has handled it is so egregious, that it should be a substantial payment."
Leaving surgical materials inside patients is surprisingly frequent. "With more than 28 million operations performed nationwide, the number of cases in which foreign bodies are left behind during a procedure in the United States has been estimated at around 1500 cases per year," scientists recently wrote in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, posted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
That may actually be a low estimate. According to The Washington Post, "a 2013 USA Today review of government data, academic studies and legal records found the figure was more likely between 4,500 and 6,000 times per year."
Sponges are most common and may cause infections. "I've had cases of sponges, needles ... towels, surgical screws, clamps, things like that, left inside people," says Faxon. This is the first time he has seen a scalpel.
Turner's wife is also party to the lawsuit. The complaint states that as a result of the injuries caused by the forgotten medical instrument, his wife "has been caused to lose his company, society, services and affections."