Medical Malpractice By The Numbers: From Killer Nurses To Retained Surgical Items

Medical malfeasance, negligence and malpractice are — thankfully — the rare exception, rather than the rule. However, as Oxygen and Dr. Terry Dubrow explore this summer, bad decisions by doctors can have deadly consequences.

By Benjamin H. Smith
License to Kill: Jeff Glidewell Wakes Up After Surgery By Christopher Duntsch

More than 50 million people undergo surgery each year in the United States. Most of these operations will be completed without any complications. Unfortunately, some will end in long-term disability and death. Although the number of serious mishaps is dwarfed by the number of successful operations, they still number in the hundreds of thousands. While actual homicidal nurses or doctors are rare, even the best of surgeons can make an honest mistake in the high-stress and high-stakes environment of the operating room. The following examples put medical negligence, malfeasance and malpractice in their proper context — an exception to the rule, but one with shattering consequences.    

1 Leg Was Removed From Willie King — The Wrong One 
In February 1995, 51-year-old Willie King, of Tampa, Florida, was scheduled to have his right leg amputated below the knee, due to diabetes-related circulatory disease. Instead, the surgeon, Dr. Rolando Sanchez, removed his left leg. The wrong leg was mistakenly listed on a blackboard outlining the day’s surgeries, according to the Associated Press. King was later awarded over $1 million in damages, according to The New York Times. The State Board of Medicine imposed penalties that were later lessened, when it came to light that both King’s legs would eventually have required amputation. The medical board also took into consideration that Sanchez had practiced for 20 years, and concluded that there were procedural errors at the hospital that day — more blame to go around, essentially.

2 Surgical Sponges Were Left Inside A Woman’s Stomach For 6 Years
In Japan, a 42-year-old woman went to her doctor complaining of abdominal bloating. A CT scan showed two masses with strings attached, later determined to be surgical sponges left inside her body after one of two C-section operations, which occurred 6 and 9 years earlier. According to CNN, in the United States alone, sponges and other “retained surgical items” are left inside patients' bodies between 4,000 to 6,000 times a year.

The 3rd Most Common Cause of Death In The U.S. Is Medical Error
A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that more than 250,000 people in the United States die each year from medical errors. According to the study, this makes medical mishaps the third leading cause of death in the nation, ahead of respiratory disease, and behind heart disease and cancer, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s numbers.

4 Years In Prison: Dr. Conrad Murray’s Sentence For The Death Of Michael Jackson
On June 25, 2009, shockwaves reverberated globally: “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, was dead at 50. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner later determined the cause of death to be an accidental overdose of the sedatives propofol and lorazepam, which had been given to him by Dr. Conrad Murray, according to ABC News. In 2011, Murray was brought to trial and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, according to The New York Times. He received the maximum sentence of four years, but was released after two, according to CNN.  

31 Of “Dr. Death” Christopher Duntsch’s Patients Were Crippled, And 2 Died
Duntsch arrived in Dallas, Texas, in 2010, looking to establish himself as a groundbreaking spinal surgeon and back doctor. Within three years, however, he had left a trail of death and disaster in his wake, leading area periodical D Magazine to christen him, “Dr. Death.” Of 38 patients that he performed surgery on from 2011 through 2013, 31 were left permanently paralyzed or seriously injured, while two died, according to Rolling Stone magazine. In July 2015, Duntsch was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, which the indictment listed as “hands and surgical tools,” according to the Texas Observer. He was later convicted of injury to an elderly person and sentenced to life in prison, according to USA Today

85 Murders Were Committed By Killer Nurse Niels Högel, If Not More
Malpractice and medical error are not murder — however, that’s not to say there aren’t murderers working as doctors, nurses and EMTs. In 2005, German nurse Niels Högel was caught injecting patients with drugs that would induce heart attacks, so he could heroically resuscitate them, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Subsequent investigations determined he had killed as many as 300 people. Already serving a life sentence for a 2015 conviction, Högel was found guilty of murdering 85 patients on June 6, 2019, with the trial judge calling his crimes, “incomprehensible,” and saying, “Your guilt is so large that one can’t explain it,” according to The New York Times.

1,400 Negligent Patient Deaths Have Occurred In Florida This Decade
According to NBC affiliate WPTV-TV, during the past 10 years, more than 1,400 patients have died in Florida alone, resulting in over $460 million dollars in malpractice claims. In 2004, voters there passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting physicians with three or more incidents of medical negligence from practicing medicine. However, Tampa Bay’s ABC Action News discovered that since 2009 only two medical licenses have been suspended under the law while hundreds of other doctors accused of malfeasance are still working in the state. 

This summer, tune in as Oxygen, the destination for high-quality crime programming, investigates the jaw-dropping cases of murderous doctors, nurses and medical professionals in the new series, “License to Kill” premiering on Sunday, June 23 at 7pm ET/PT.  Hosted by renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow (“Botched”), the series chronicles the harrowing accounts of patients put into jeopardy by medical professionals’ insidious use of their expertise. 

In the premiere episode, “Deadly God Complex,” Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a Dallas spine surgeon’s God complex puts patients at risk and it’s up to the fellow medical staff to blow the whistle before more innocent people are victimized. 

Related Stories
Related Show

Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content. 

You May Also Like...
Recommended by Zergnet