Nothing left behind

Nothing left behind

On an overnight shift in 2005,Sophia Savage,a nurse in Kentucky,felt a crushing pain in her abdomen and started vomiting

Anahad O’connor

On an overnight shift in 2005,Sophia Savage,a nurse in Kentucky,felt a crushing pain in her abdomen and started vomiting.

The next day she underwent a CT scan,which led to a startling diagnosis: A surgical sponge was lodged in her abdomen,left behind,it turned out,by a surgeon who had performed her hysterectomy four years earlier.

Savage’s doctor ordered immediate surgery to remove the sponge.


“What they found was horrific,” Savage said. “It had adhered to the bladder and the stomach area,and to the walls of my abdominal cavity.”

The festering sponge had spread an infection,requiring the removal of a large segment of Savage’s intestine.

Every year,an estimated 4,000 cases of “retained surgical items” are reported in US. These are items left in the patient’s body after surgery,and the vast majority are gauzelike sponges used to soak up blood. During a long operation,doctors may stuff dozens of them inside a patient to control bleeding.

Though no two cases are the same,the core of the problem,experts say,is that surgical teams rely on an old-fashioned method to avoid leaving sponges in patients. In most operating rooms,a nurse keeps a manual count of the sponges a surgeon uses in a procedure. But in that busy and sometimes chaotic environment,miscounts occur,and every so often a sponge ends up on the wrong side of the stitches.

In recent years,new technology and sponge-counting methods have made it easier to remedy the problem. But many hospitals have resisted,despite the fact that groups like the Association of Operating Room Nurses and the American College of Surgeons have called on hospitals to update their practices.

As a result,patients are left at risk,said Dr. Verna C. Gibbs,a professor of surgery at the University of California,San Francisco.

“In most instances,the patient is completely helpless,” said Gibbs,who is also the director of NoThing Left Behind,a national surgical patient safety project. “We’ve anesthetised them,we take away their ability to breathe,and we operate on them. There’s no patient advocate standing over them saying,‘Don’t forget that sponge in them.’ I consider it a great affront that we still manage to leave our tools inside of people.”

All sorts of tools are mistakenly left in patients: clamps,scalpels,even scissors on occasion. But sponges account for about two-thirds of all retained items.

When balled up,soaked in blood and tucked inside a patient,a 4-by-4-inch cotton sponge is easy to miss,especially inside large cavities. Abdominal operations are most frequently associated with retained sponges,and surgeons are more likely to leave items in overweight patients.

Now hospitals have a more technological approach at their disposal. They can track sponges through the use of radio-frequency tags. In a study published in the October issue of The Journal of the American College of Surgeons,researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at 2,285 cases in which sponges were tracked using a system called RF Assure Detection. Every sponge contained a tiny radio-frequency tag,about the size of a grain of rice.

“It’s a small price to pay to enhance patient safety,” said Dr. Leo R. Brancazio,the medical director of labour and delivery at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina,which adopted the RF Assure system after a sponge was left inside a patient during a Caesarean delivery. Another tracking system relies on bar code technology. Every sponge receives a bar code,which is scanned before use and scanned again as it is retrieved.


But Gibbs,of NoThing Left Behind,said technology should be only an adjunct to manual counting. “Technology is but an aid,” Gibbs said. “The way that safety problems are corrected is by changing the culture of the OR.”