The 10 Most Shocking Medical Nightmares

For any of you who have had to undergo surgery at some point during your lifetime, you will be all too familiar with that edgy feeling, the one of uncertainty you get as you are rolled into the operating room. You know everything will more than likely run smoothly, but thanks to films like Awake starring Jessica Alba, and the even creepier The Skin I Live In starring Antonio Banderas, many of us are terrified of the nightmarish possible outcomes. Not recommended viewing if you are about to go under the knife any time soon.

Thankfully, medical nightmares do not happen too often and most of us will be pretty safe in the hands of our surgeon and their team. In fact, the greatest risk involved in surgery is in the aftercare process, the European Surgical Outcomes Study finding that ‘as many as 4 out of every 100 people’ undergoing surgery are at risk of death after the procedure. This is due to various factors, highest among them is the clinician’s failure to admit at risk patients to critical care wards post-surgery.

We have all heard the horror stories about patients waking up mid surgery, unable to move or cry out for help. Amazingly, this is much more common than we think. Studies carried out by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the University of Chicago and the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg indicate that roughly 1 out of every 10,000 patients remain conscious during surgery to, a fact, to which their doctor remains oblivious. This is not the only thing that can go wrong. Cases have been reported whereby patients have been recovering from surgery only to discover that their surgeon has left a parting gift in the form of a scalpel before being stitched up again. It truly is the stuff of nightmares.

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10 Anaesthesia Awareness

Anaesthesia Awareness, or, ‘unintended inoperative awareness’ occurs when the anaesthesia administered to a patient during a surgical procedure has been ineffective. The patient remains wide awake, fully aware of their surroundings, often suffering from immense pain while doctors cut them open.

Carol Weihir’s story reads like something straight out of a horror story. When Weihir underwent eye surgery a number of years ago, she awoke suddenly to a voice uttering ‘Cut deeper, pull harder’ while disco music played in the background. In a state of drug induced paralysis, she was unable to communicate verbally or non-verbally with the doctors. Now a patient advocate who runs a national anaesthesia campaign, Weiher claims that her surgical nightmare caused her great psychological distress which resulted in PTSD.

9 Retained Foreign Bodies

This happens surprisingly often during surgery. ‘Retained foreign bodies’ range from sponges to scissors or scalpals on the more detrimental end of the scale. A study carried out by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has found that a foreign object ‘is left inside a patient’s body 39 times’ a week.

Lenny LeClair is all too familiar with the consequences of medical negligence. When the symptoms of what he initially believed to be a stomach bug became increasingly severe, he was sent for a CT scan which revealed that numerous sponges, left behind from a previous surgery, were embedded in his intestines. LeClair had to undergo several surgeries to rectify the damage and was even put into an induced coma during recovery. A significant portion of his intestines had to be removed resulting in his need to have a colostomy bag attached to his abdomen.

8 Operating On The Wrong Patient

It sounds like something straight out of Carry on Doctor but believe it or not, it happens. This medical nightmare is usually down to a paperwork glitch…which comes at a big cost to the patient, and the hospital as compensation paid out to victims of medical negligence is on the rise.

While the identity of the patients involved has been concealed, a number of years ago two patients with the same name were admitted to the same ward of a London hospital and shockingly, the wrong patient underwent invasive lung surgery while the patient scheduled for surgery was left waiting. Annual figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre have revealed that over 162,000 complaints were lodged against the NHS last year alone.

7 Operating On The Wrong Body Part

This would definitely make most of us fear going under the knife for any reason. It conjures up images of Frankenstein’s monster, strewn together with various body parts. It’s not all that bad though. Often referred to as wrong-sided surgery, the most common mistake that occurs here is that the surgeon operates on the wrong side of the body. While such mistakes do not usually have fatal consequences, an 86 year old patient died following a surgical procedure at Rhode Island Hosital a number of year ago. Parker-Pope commented that ‘a surgeon ‘drilled into the wrong side of [the patient’s] head’ during an emergency operation. Realising his mistake, he operated in the correct place but the patient died a few days later.

6 Baby Mix-Ups

It’s a nightmare scenario for parents, the kind of thing you would expect to witness on screen. There are a number of unfortunate cases out there though where parents are faced with the agonising realisation that they have been sent home with the wrong baby. Luckily, these cases are few and far between, the majority of hospitals having implemented measures to ensure this doesn’t occur.

In December of 2013, Jessica Escobedo gave birth to her third child Melanie at the Oak Bend Medical Centre in Richmond, Texas. After the staff changeover, Escobedo was given the wrong baby which she knew instinctually and was confirmed when ‘the name band had the wrong information on it.’ Shockingly, while her baby was with another woman she was breastfed. The centre has confirmed that the nurse responsible for the mix-up has since been fired.

5 Demara, 'The Great Imposter'

Thankfully, this kind of scenario is extremely rare but a list about medical controversies would not be complete without mentioning the infamous Ferdinand Demara, also known as ‘the Great Imposter.’ He assumed various identities throughout his life. During the Korean War, he impersonated a surgeon while on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer. What makes Demara’s case so fascinating is that he actually managed to save so many lives despite having no training in the medical field. C.S. a staff member at the Naval and Military Museum has stated that Demara possessed ‘a strong intellect, plus a phenomenal memory’ enabling him to read up on various procedures which he performed on the ship’s crew members. He successfully performed major chest surgery on one individual. His superiors were so impressed with him they decided to put him forward for a medal. As his notoriety spread, the truth about his identity was eventually revealed.

4 Misplaced Tubes

It is often the case that patients in a critical condition require breathing and/or feeding tubes during their stay in a medical facility. It is standard procedure and not something we give much thought to. Frighteningly though, if these tubes are misplaced or improperly handled, it can result in serious damage and even death in some cases.

The Health Service Journal confirmed earlier this year that 84 year old Andriana Georgiou contracted pneumonia and ‘died 11 days after the [misplacement of a feeding tube into her lung] in December of 2012.’ The mistake took place at the Homerton University Hospital in east London where Georgiou was being treated for a stroke. Tragically, the inquest heard that almost ‘two litres of fluid had to be drained from her pleural cavity’ as a result of the misplaced tube.

3 Symphysiotomy 

One of the biggest scandals to hit the island of Ireland in recent years was the harrowing cases of symphysiotomy carried out by obstetrician Dr. Michael Neary at the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Neary’s malpractice makes for disturbing reading. The doctor essentially ripped the uteri out of countless women shortly after giving birth, for absolutely no medical reason. Over the course of his career, Neary carried out at least 129 caesarean hysterectomies and those are the one’s that have just been accounted for.

This month Rita McCann, an elderly Irish woman described the effects of symphysiotomy as ‘a life sentence.’ Even though the procedure was carried out in 1957, she still suffers with back problems today. The procedure was carried out without McCann’s knowledge or permission, the case with all of the victims.

2 Thalidomide Scandal

Most of us will have heard something about the thalidomide distribution scandal of the 1950's and 60's. Originally released as a sedative, it was also found to ease the effects of morning sickness and so was administered to pregnant women. It was withdrawn from the market in 1962 when it became apparent that it posed risks for the developing fetus which resulted in birth defects.

Pregnant women who took this drug had no idea of the horrific consequences for their children. Matt Goddard has highlighted that ‘across 46 countries, over 10,000 children were born with defects like phocomelia’, a disorder that results in extreme shortening of the bones of the upper limbs.

1 Botched Plastic Surgery

When faced with the innumerable possibilities of what can (and does) go wrong during surgery, it’s pretty hard to understand why someone would repeatedly put themselves through voluntary surgery, but to each their own. When thinking about botched plastic surgeries, it isn't long before Jocelyn Wildenstein comes to mind. Reported to have undergone roughly 30 surgeries, Wildenstein has come to be known as ‘Catwoman’ due to undergoing extensive surgeries in order to look more feline, a look she has spent over $4 million pursuing. Wildenstein has undergone lip augmentations, eyebrow lifts, facelifts and breast augmentations, to name but a few, over the years.

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