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Radiologists Face Lawsuit Threat Over Sponge

September 15, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Abdominal Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging, Practice Management
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For five months, the man complained of intense abdominal pain. Repeated CT scans showed something that, allegedly, was repeatedly misidentified.

That “something” was the metal marker on a surgical sponge, left in the man’s body after surgery for diverticulitis. And the patient was a county judge in Palm Beach County, Florida, who has just reached a confidential settlement with the hospital and whose lawyer has announced plans to sue the original surgeon and two radiologists.

The experience also has inspired the judge, 67-year-old Nelson Bailey, to mount a two-pronged public campaign. He wants hospitals to use surgical sponges with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags or some other technology that allows sponges accidentally left in the body to be easily detected. And he wants Florida’s caps on medical-malpractice damages lifted.

The judge’s settlement with Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach prevents him from revealing the amount of money he received, but it does specifically allow him to speak publicly about his experience. A spokeswoman for the hospital’s owner, Tenet Healthcare System, said the hospital was bound by privacy and confidentiality agreements and could not comment.

The judge said that after his initial surgery, he was also given an incorrect drug that sped up his heart rate instead of lowering his blood pressure, as had been intended. “It was the only time in my life that I knew I was actually dying,” he said. Fortunately, it had no lasting physical effect, so, he said, he was unable to make a legal claim for damages.

Judge Bailey, a former assistant state attorney general, has a long, white beard, wears cowboy boots under his robe, and lives with his wife on a small ranch in Loxahatchee Groves, on the edge of the Everglades. He appears regularly at folk festivals, telling stories about Florida history. He loves horseback trail riding, but has had to give it up because infection from the sponge damaged his intestine. The damaged part had to be removed, forcing him to stay near a bathroom.

When doctors at Good Samaritan finally determined that a sponge had been left inside Judge Bailey, they offered to remove it for free, the judge said. He told the Palm Beach Post newspaper:

I said, ‘You are never going to lay a hand on me again.’

He had the sponge-removal surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. That was in March. While there, Bailey said, he learned about RFID-tagged sponges that can be detected by waving a wand over a patient.

As for his other crusade, Florida law places caps on punitive damages. “I don’t know what all these caps are,” Judge Bailey said. “That is not my area of the law. But what I would like to see is when you have malpractice per se, something this egregious, the damages should be between the parties, a judge, and jury without the state legislature dictating limits.”

Related seminar: Imaging Advances: Abdominal, Thoracic, Skeletal (just released)

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