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10 of the Most Horrifying Medical Blunders of All Time

Medical Blunders

Despite a physician’s best intention to respect the Hippocratic Oath, they err like every other human. But the consequences of their errors are far more tragic than that of others. And blunders in the field of medicine are not owned by doctors alone; irresponsible pharmaceutical companies and lax regulatory bodies are equal contributors. Listed below are ten of the most shocking medical blunders of all time by doctors and companies alike.

1. A surgeon mistakenly amputated the healthy leg of a diabetic patient instead of the diseased one. Consequently, Willie King lost both his limbs. The inconceivable error occurred because the operating room schedule, blackboard, and the hospital computer system had all listed the wrong foot.

Leg amputation
Leg amputation.

At the age of 51, Willie King faced the prospect of losing his right leg. He has been diabetic for 21 years and his leg was severely diseased. Amputation of the lower right limb became necessary.

The surgery was scheduled for February 20, 1995. His surgeon, Dr. Rolando Sanchez, arrived in the operation theatre and found a diseased foot prepped for surgery. He was midway into the procedure when a nurse who was going through King’s paperwork, told Sanchez that he was working on the wrong foot.

But it was too late to stop.

After the surgery, Sanchez himself informed King of the mishap. As expected, a devastated King rightfully sued the surgeon and the hospital. An investigation concluded that the operating room schedule and blackboard, and the hospital computer system listed the left foot. The very paperwork that a surgeon refers to in the operating room.

Even though the patient’s consent form and his medical history did mention the correct leg, a surgeon was not required to cross-check these documents at the time.

Owing to the circumstance, the surgeon was defended by his colleagues and was suspended for only two years with a fine of $250,000. (1, 2)

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2. In 1982, Cutter Laboratories continued to sell Factor VIII blood products to hemophiliacs in Asia and Latin America, even after realizing that they were contaminated with a virus. The new virus, which was unnamed at the time, was HIV. Even though a new process was set in place to manufacture heat-treated products, they sold the old inventory to maximize profit.

Factor VIII
Image credits: Factor8scandal.UK

People suffering from hemophilia are unable to produce the protein Factor VIII. This impairs their body to produce blood clots, a process necessary to stop bleeding. Hemophiliacs need the blood product, Factor VIII, produced from the plasma of donors.

In July 1982, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia reported that hemophiliacs were getting infected with a disease from blood products.

The infectious unnamed disease was AIDS. At the time, HIV tests were not developed, and as a result, the donated plasma was not screened for the disease.

Taking heed of the report, all the four major producers of Factor VIII heat-treated the product to render the virus undetectable.

However, one company, Cutter Laboratories, continued to sell the leftover inventory of the unheated product to Asian and Latin American countries and sold the new safe medicine in the West.

The company justified the selling by reporting that;

  • some customers doubted the new drug’s effectiveness;
  • some countries were slow to approve its sale, and;
  • there was a shortage of plasma.

All of this was a misrepresentation of facts.

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They finally stopped in July 1985, only when the untreated product became unmarketable in those countries. However, the damage was done. Hemophiliacs who were infused with the HIV-contaminated medicine tested positive for HIV and developed AIDS.

Though the true extent of the damage could never be quantified as testing of HIV was still not developed, the profiteering has marked its presence in the notorious history of medical blunders. (1, 2, 3)

3. In 2003, 17-year-old Jessica Santillan died after receiving a heart and lungs transplant with organs from a donor with the wrong blood type. Every nurse and doctor involved in the case made the misassumption that someone must have already cross-checked the blood group of the donor with that of Jessica’s.

Blood transfusion
Blood transfusion

Magdelena Santillan smuggled her family into the US in hopes of a miracle. Her 17-year-old daughter, Jesica Santillan, had congenital restrictive cardiomyopathy and needed a heart and lung transplant. The family lived in a trailer in North Carolina and was able to raise money for the transplant with help from a local builder.

After three years of being on the waiting list at Duke University Hospital, Jesica Santillan finally found a donor. The transplant was scheduled for February 7, 2003. The struggle of the family seemed to be paying off until Dr. Jaggers, her surgeon, was informed during the surgery that the blood type of the donor and the recipient didn’t match.

At that point, the organs were already placed inside Jesica, and there was nothing that could have been done.

On February 20, Jesica received a new heart and a set of lungs. But the transplant failed and she was removed from life support.

The sensational error that made its way to national news begged the question: How did a dozen of doctors and nurses working at the hospital not cross-check the basic requirement of matching a donor?

The answer is terrifyingly elementary – everyone assumed that it must have already been checked. It started when the Carolina Donor Services offered the organs to Dr. Jaggers. He simply assumed that if they are offering the organs, it must be a match. (1, 2, 3)

4. In 1937, a sulfonamide antibiotic named “Elixir Sulfanilamide” caused mass poisoning in the United States, killing 100 people. The tragedy was a result of the ignorance of the chief pharmacist. He was unaware of the toxicity of diethylene glycol (DEG) and used it as a solvent in the antibiotic.

Elixir Sulfanilamide
Elixir Sulfanilamide. Image credits: Singleraoncology.com

Pharmaceutical manufacturer S. E. Massengill Company created a sulfonamide antibiotic in 1937.  Named “Elixir Sulfanilamide,” it was prepared by mixing raspberry flavoring into the drug. The mixture was then dissolved in diethylene glycol (DEG), a solvent known to cause kidney failure. Though there were reports of fatality by DEG, it was not widely known

The company’s chief chemist and pharmacist, Harold Watkins, was unaware of such vital reports of the solvent he had employed in the medicine.

The company didn’t perform any safety testing as it was not required by law. It began selling the elixir in September 1937, and by the 11th of the next month, several people died from its consumption.

The distributed medicine was recovered, but not before 100 people died.

Massengill Company was unapologetic and didn’t shoulder any responsibility. The chemist, however, committed suicide. (1, 2)

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5. Nancy and Thomas Andrews were a victim of a botched IVF procedure. When their daughter was born with skin darker than either of them, they knew something was amiss. A home DNA test confirmed their doubts – Thomas was not the father. Somehow, the clinic had mixed-up his sperm with that of an identified man.

DNA test
DNA test

Jessica Andrews was born with skin shades darker than her Caucasian father and Hispanic mother. As she was born through IVF, the parents doubted that a wrong sperm must have been implanted.

When the parents approached the doctor, they were assured that the child’s skin would turn lighter with time.

Unsatisfied with the explanation, Nancy and Thomas Andrews conducted a home DNA test and their fear was confirmed. Thomas Andrews was not the father.

The New York clinic had somehow mixed up the sperm of Andrew with that of an identified man.

The couple was not only upset about the mix-up but also concerned that the biological father may claim Jessica. (1, 2)

Also read: 10 Common Medical Beliefs That Are Actually Myths

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