Woman’s Severe Bloating Turned Out to Be From Surgical Sponges Accidentally Left Inside Her

They were there for at least six years after a C-section.

Susan  Rinkunas

Susan Rinkunas

Courtesy of the New England Journal of Medicine

In a case that should sufficiently freak out anyone who has had or will have surgery, a Japanese woman learned that her stomach bloating was caused by doctors accidentally leaving surgical sponges inside her abdomen at least six years earlier.

A 42-year-old Japanese woman went to a primary care clinic to talk about the lower abdominal bloating she'd been dealing with for three years; the woman told doctors that she'd given birth via Cesarean sections 6 and 9 years earlier, according to a case report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The doctors who examined her felt a mass near each of her hip bones so they ordered imaging tests to see what was going on. CT scans showed that the masses contained "hyperdense, stringy structures." Hmmm, what could those be?

Doctors performed surgery to remove the masses, which were chilling in the woman's paracolic recesses, aka the space between the large intestine and the abdominal wall, and had partially adhered to her intestines. (Some surgeons put sponges there during C-sections to prevent the intestines from getting in the way during the procedure.) When they cut the masses in half, they found two gauze sponges "encapsulated by thick, fibrous walls"—meaning her body had built little flesh bubbles around them like some sort of chicken cordon bleu from hell. (Hope you're not eating right now.)

The woman was diagnosed with gossypiboma, which is when a foreign object is left inside the body after surgery. These items are also called "retained foreign bodies," which sounds very dignified and not at all like a fuckup. After the sponges were removed, the woman's bloating completely went away and she was discharged from the hospital five days later.

Surgeons forgetting things inside people is rare but it does happen—the incidence is estimated to be somewhere between 1 in 5,500 and 1 in 18,760 inpatient operations—and sponges are the most common item that's forgotten. Surgeons often use safety checklists, which include pre-op and post op-inventory, to make sure that there aren't any sponges, needles, or other equipment "missing" before they close someone up. Many hospitals even do routine X-rays to ensure they got everything out; from time to time the scans do find stuff even if the inventory count was reported to be correct. Gulp.

Sponges may be the most common, but worse things have been left behind: In January, a Connecticut Army veteran filed a lawsuit against the Veterans Administration after surgeons at a VA hospital left a scalpel in his abdomen during a 2013 procedure. Doctors in that case did not order a post-op X-ray. The scalpel was removed in April 2017 but the man is worried about long-term damage.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.