Being Operated On While Awake and Other Terrifying Medical Mistakes You Didn’t Know Could Happen

No one wants to think about them, but unfortunately, medical mistakes happen — and they sometimes have dire consequences. After all, doctors and surgeons are humans too, and there’s always the potential of an error.

For the most part, the majority of common surgeries and procedures are considered to be safe in the United States. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk of something going awry. These are a few terrifying medical mistakes you may not have considered (plus, how getting operated on while awake really happens on page 9).

Accidental overdoses

Man taking medicine with a glass of water

This happens more often than you think. | iStock/Getty Images

We trust our medical professionals to administer the proper amount of prescription medication to us, but unfortunately, errors happen. And in the case of 16-year-old Pablo Garcia, who was accidentally given 38 times the dose he should have received, it was almost fatal.

Next: It’s ridiculous that this ever happens, but it’s shockingly common.

Operating on the wrong person

Operation room during surgery

Can you imagine being operated on if you didn’t need surgery? | Hin255/iStock/Getty Images

As baffling as it is, surgeons have operated on the wrong patient … a lot. A study that observed doctors in Colorado over a six-and-a-half year period found they operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times.

Next: Bad blood

Receiving the wrong blood

Blood drawn from an old man's arm

Blood needs to be carefully labeled to prevent this from happening. | Picsfive/iStock/Getty Images

Blood transfusions are fairly common procedures, and of course, the blood is carefully labeled. But that doesn’t mean errors are never made, the most common being giving the patient the wrong blood.

Next: This rare mistake is the leading cause of preventable deaths at hospitals.

Air embolisms

close-up of vaccination phials

Doctors really need to know what they’re doing to prevent this. |

An air embolism happens when one or more air bubbles enter a vein or artery and block it. A syringe or IV can accidentally inject air into your veins, which can be fatal.

Next: This is the last thing you should ever have to worry about when you’re about to have surgery.

Fires in the operating room

Doctor and nurses wheeling patient

A fire is the last thing you want to worry about before surgery. | Sam Edwards

Patients have enough to worry about before they go under the knife without having to think about a potential fire in the OR. But A 2003 report relayed that nearly 100 surgical fires occur each year in the U.S., and the actual numbers could be much higher. And what’s even more shocking: Nearly all operating room fires ignite on or in the patient.

Next: Who knew you could have the wrong body part removed?

Operating on the wrong part

Nurse standing with old patient in a wheelchair

You better hope your doctor knows where to operate! | Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images

Even if surgeons operate on the right patient, it’s entirely possible that they’ll operate on the wrong body part. Usually great measures are taken to prevent this, but sadly, it still happens.

Next: A tubal mistake

Mixing up tubes

medical team suiting up prior to surgery

Chest tubes and feeding tubes look a little too similar. |

Believe it or not, a chest tube and a feeding tube can look remarkably similar. And while it’s not common, it does happen, and medicine meant for your stomach can wind up in your chest.

Next: Your surgeon might leave a souvenir behind.

 Items left in your body after surgery

surgical scissors on a table

Some patients have multiple items left in their bodies. |

This doesn’t seem possible, but occasionally, surgeons will leave different objects and instruments in the patient’s body during the operation. Usually it’s just one small thing, like a scalpel, but in the case of this poor German cancer patient, 16 items were left in his body.

Next: This may be the scariest medical error ever. 

Being operated on while awake

Anesthesiologist in operating room

Yes, this really does happen. | Chris Ryan/iStock/Getty Images

This sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it actually happens. Luckily, this is a rare phenomenon, but people have woken up during surgery unable to move or speak. Some are lucky enough not to feel the pain, but others describe it as agonizing.

Next: Have plastic surgery at your own risk.

Plastic surgery blunders

a surgeon holding a breast implant

Make sure you know exactly who’s doing your plastic surgery. | Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Paul Nassif, the host of the show Botched, gets paid to fix others’ mistakes — and he doesn’t hold back about the things he sees. From patients forced to stay awake during surgeries to women getting breast implants in their bottoms, Dr. Nassif has seen it all, and he cautions anyone considering plastic surgery to make sure their medical team is legit.

Next: Don’t lie down for too long.

Too much bed rest

a hospital bed

Moving as much as you can comfortably is often for the best. | iStock/Getty Images

If you doctor prescribes bed rest in the hospital, make sure you ask a lot of questions about how much you’re supposed to move. Some doctors fail to disclose the fact that moving as much as you’re able to will not only help you recover faster, but can prevent further injury. Long periods of inactivity weaken you, and patients have been seriously hurt.

Next: Make sure your doctor takes you seriously.

Dismissing valid medical concerns

Male doctor talking to patient

Advocate for your needs and make sure your doctor is taking you seriously. | Seb_ra/iStock/Getty Images

You know yourself better than anyone, so if you have concerns about your health, make sure your doctor listens. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. In some cases, like in the matter of a 37-year-old University professor who died of lung cancer because her doctor misdiagnosed her with anxiety and depression, being your own advocate can save your life.

Next: Clean hands are absolutely vital.

Unwashed hands can cause infection

Female doctor's hands putting on blue sterilized surgical gloves

Washed hands and surgical gloves can save lives. |

There’s not much you can do about this one, but according to a study, health care workers who wear gloves in hospitals are less likely to wash their hands before and after seeing patients. But germs can easily travel through latex and spread infection.

Next: Warning: This might give you nightmares.

An acid-washed penis

Businessman shouting and looking angry

Yes, this really can happen. |

The good news is, it’s highly unlikely that this will ever happen again … but the fact that it happened is horrifying. A patient named William Morrison underwent a screening that required his penis be washed in an acid solution, but instead of the 3-5% solution, the poor man got a 72% solution instead. Ouch.

Next: Here’s what you can do to prevent medical mistakes from happening to you.

Are any of these mistakes preventable?

Doctor showing x-ray to a patient

Make sure you’re doing all you can to ensure no mistakes are made. | johnkellerman/iStock/Getty Images

The bad news is, some parts of your medical care are left entirely up to fate — but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prevent yourself from becoming a real-life horror story. You can improve your odds by:

  • Preparing a proactive medical summary of your health conditions and allergies
  • Seeing a doctor recommended by another health care provider (word of mouth may not cut it)
  • Being observant and taking notes so there’s no miscommunication
  • Speaking up if you see something (like a doctor not washing their hands)

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