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Patient Sues Hospital After Forgotten Surgical Sponge Costs Her Portion Of Intestine

SIMI VALLEY ( — A woman is suing Simi Valley Hospital after she says she has lived a nightmare for four years due to a medical mistake.

Carol Critchfield was 56 in 2007, when she went to Simi Valley Hospital for a standard hysterectomy and bladder-support surgery.

Since then, her life has not been the same.

"I wake up every morning really, really nauseous and dehydrated," Critchfield said.

Three days after her surgery, her husband took her back to the emergency room because she was complaining of pain. The hospital passed the pain off as uncritical.

"They took an X-ray, and then they told me it appeared that I was severely constipated, and they pretty much just sent me home," Critchfield said.

However, another incident, over a year later, resulted in her co-workers at Simi Valley Unified calling an ambulance.

"I started to feel ill and faint, and (I) started to perspire, and (I had) blurry vision," Critchfield recalled. "They came back, saying that I had a gastrointestinal issue of some sort, and they told me to not eat any more spicy food, and sent me on my way."

Beginning in Spring of 2011, her symptoms progressed to begin including bleeding. After suspecting an ovarian cyst, her gynecologist removed her ovaries, at which point a mass was detected.

What was then discovered was shocking.

"The surgeon came back and told my husband that it was not a mass inside my small intestine," Critchfield said. "It was a sponge that was left in, and it had become completely encased with scar tissue. So, they had to remove a large amount of my intestine."

After the discovery, Critchfield decided to file a lawsuit against the hospital, the doctors and the radiologist involved in her previous checkups.

"This is one of those 'never' events; it should never have happened," attorney Steve Gambardella said. "There were repetitive errors on so many different levels. The surgeon was not told, the patient was not told, she went on for four years with a sponge in her abdomen."

Gambardella showed that the sponges involved in the surgery, such as the one that was left inside Critchfield, were not counted, as is protocol. He went on to point out one of her X-rays, which the radiologist noted showed an object containing a metallic substance, such as the substance used in the sponges.

In addition to the tissue surrounding the area of the left sponge, Critchfield says her emotional scars, still fresh, are just as painful.

"This never should have gone beyond the first surgery. I had four children, and never had stretch marks," Critchfield said. "I was proud of that fact, you know? And I liked the fact that I looked good for my husband. With the mass removal surgery, they cut me vertically, so I'm so scarred up. If he does happen to see me, I hide the scarring. It's awful."

After a statement of deficiencies from the State Department of Public Health, which suggested the "retained sponge/gauze ... was likely to cause serious injury or death," the hospital was fined in 2012 — $25,000 for Critchfield's incident, and $50,000 months later, for another patient in whom an 8-inch surgical clamp had been forgotten.

The Simi Valley Hospital released a statement addressing Critchfield's ordeal, reading in part:

"We take our responsibility to our patients very seriously, which is why we self-reported this incident. ... This event was investigated by California Department of Public Health. It occurred in 2007 and since that time, we have implemented additional processes that further promote patient safety,"

The hospital also pointed out a 2014 Consumer Reports rating, which named the Simi Valley Hospital the safest in Ventura County.

"I just can't imagine that Simi Valley Hospital is going around, saying they're the safest," Critchfield said. "I certainly hope they have made strides to make it better. I wouldn't want this to happen to anybody."

The cap for damages per lawsuit for medical malpractice cases, such as Critchfield's, is $250,000. While that cap has been in place since the 1970s, a bill is currently pending in the state Legislature, seeking to increase that cap to $1 million.

A study by the Loyola University Health System found that around 1,500 medical instruments are left inside patients every year.

About 1,000 of those are sponges.

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