5 Ways Your Routine Surgery Can Go Horrifically Wrong
If you undergo surgery, there’s around a two-percent chance that you’ll die within 30 days. Of course, if you’re in a situation where you’re up for surgery, there could be an even greater chance that you’ll die if you don’t have surgery. A fairly large number of patients being rolled in to the operating room are bleeding out because a ninja sliced their belly, and without intervention, they’ll only live for a few more minutes.
So, if you’re considering surgery, your doctor will probably walk you through various risks (and if you suffer from abdominal katana, you’ll probably be fine with getting wheeled in without weighing those risks). But those risks go a bit beyond a simple stat saying whether you’ll live or die. When a team cuts you open, really strange stuff can happen. Such as…
Maybe You’ll Never Wake Up
We don’t mean “maybe you’ll die” (though, of course, maybe you’ll die). We mean maybe the anesthesia will knock you into an endless coma. Maybe the operation will otherwise be a success, but you’ll remain unconscious and will stay in that bed for weeks, for months or for years.
To examine this, let’s discuss the case of Jean-Pierre Adams. Adams was a professional soccer player for several French clubs, so the world followed his case and remembered his story. The same thing might just happen to you, even if you aren’t famous.
In 1982, when Adams was 36, he hurt a tendon in his leg. Leg tendon surgery is fairly low-risk compared to some other kinds of operations. If worst comes to worst, they will have to chop off the whole leg, but you’ll still manage to soldier on. But when Adams went in for surgery, the hospital was on strike, because this was France, where people are on strike roughly 280 days a year. They were so short-staffed that day that one anesthetist was overseeing eight different patients. They should have delayed Adams’ surgery, since it wasn’t urgent, but they didn’t.
The overextended anesthetist and a trainee worked on him. One of them stuck a tube down to Adams’ lungs, which is supposed to let air flow down there freely, but in this case, it cut off the airflow. He suffered a heart attack. Oxygen stopped going to his brain. The leg procedure was trivial, but he spent the next 15 months in hospitals, till staff said there was really nothing they could do for his coma, and he had to leave.
His wife Bernedette took care of him at home. He’d go through cycles of sleep and being awake, and was able to eat mushed-up food, but the coma never lifted, and doctors said he never regained brain function. Years passed. While his brother suggested euthanasia, Bernedette said no and went on caring for him full-time.
Adams finally died in 2021. He was 73 and had spent 39 years in a coma. The hospital staff who messed up his operation were found liable, by the way. They received a one-month suspension and had to pay a fine of $815.
Maybe You’ll Wake Up Too Soon
You may well wake up in the middle of surgery, with a bunch of knives still exploring your insides. Your surgical team then might give you just enough drugs that you will emerge from surgery with no memory of your temporary awakening. Perhaps that sounds like a deep betrayal. But you may enjoy that far more than the alternative.
In 2006, Virginia minister and ex-coalminer Sherman Sizemore was having abdominal pains, with no clear cause. Doctors suggested exploratory surgery. The way this sort of surgery is supposed to go, you get anesthesia to knock you out. Though the anesthesia team did inject him with something, it merely paralyzed him. He stayed conscious throughout the operation, aware and able to feel the surgeons slice him open.
We could walk you through what that must have felt like, for the 16 minutes between the first cut and when they finally administered the anesthesia. A whole different kind of horror, though, came once the operation finished. First of all, with the doctors not acknowledging any anesthesia errors, Sizemore had to wonder whether he’d experienced it at all or whether his mind had created false memories for him. He generally couldn’t sleep, and when he did, he had nightmares (of being cut open again). He started complaining to his family that people were trying to bury him alive, a strange accusation that should have merited immediate psychiatric care.
There are ways to guard against anesthesia awareness, including brain monitors that check if the patient really is unconscious. The family sued, and the hospital settled. But it was too late for Sizemore, who committed suicide two weeks after his operation. Oh, and the abdominal pains? Apparently that was a gallbladder issue, but Sizemore wasn’t around long enough for the hospital to follow up on it.
Maybe Your Chest Will Catch Fire
An operating room has all the ingredients for a fire. For starters, a fire will find plenty of oxygen there, especially if the surgeons are pumping in some supplementary O₂. The equipment can provide a spark. And as for the fuel, well, the fuel is you of course.
In 2018, doctors at Austin Hospital in Melbourne were performing some good ol’ open heart surgery. The patient was a 60-year-old man with a tear in a wall of his aorta. This guy had had surgical work on him before, for a bypass and for lung obstructions. As a result of his previous conditions, the surgeons noted some parts of his lung inflated too much and leaked air into the chest cavity they were spelunking through.
The prescription for this — extra oxygen, delivered through the same tube that was giving the man his anesthesia. Some of that oxygen whistled right out that lung hole into the chest cavity. Also on hand was an electrocautery device, which cuts and seals flesh using the power of electricity. This device let out a spark that set fire to some surgical stuff sitting around in the open chest. The man was now on fire.
Still, they managed to extinguish the fire and to even complete the operation, rather than panicking and fleeing like sane people. As a result, this mishap did not result in death and litigation but in the doctors presenting their case at an international conference. One doctor from the team said she’d seen six different chest flash fires like this one. Someone needs to ask whether that’s typical or if it’s just an Australia problem.
Maybe Things Will Get Hairy
Most operations end with you sporting less hair than before. Naturally, doctors will shave your head every time they crack open your skull, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they shave the rest of you as well. This might be unnecessary (some doctors wonder, “Should we really bother ripping off those pubes?”), but it’s normal. If you find yourself with more hair after surgery, though, that’s weird, especially if the hair comes in unusual places.
Oral reconstruction is a type of surgery that fiddles with your jaw and mouth, to fix everything from birth defects like cleft palates to messed-up bone stuff that gives you pain. To get your mouth working correctly again, doctors (“maxillofacial surgeons”) might graft skin from elsewhere on your body to the roof of your mouth.
The roof of your mouth is not normally made of skin but of epithelial tissue, the same material that lines various other orifices. One difference between skin and epithelium: Skin has hair. So, the occasional oral reconstructive surgery patients finds themselves completely satisfied with the operation, until things start feeling funny and they realize hair’s now growing in there. You know how annoying it is when you discover a hair has landed in your mouth? Scale that up a little, and replace it with hairs you can’t spit out.
That photo is of a 40-year-old patient whose case made it to the International Journal of Trichology. Trichology is not the study of mouths but the study of hair, and we imagine that trichologists rarely get to puzzle over something as interesting as this.
A hairy mouth is not the end of the world, but patients describe it as painful and say it interferes with swallowing. Most conventional shaving techniques don’t suit the inside of the mouth, so doctors recommend laser hair removal. Lasers usually work but sometimes fail, as they did with one white-haired patient. The above patient actually elected not to even try a laser procedure. Maybe he liked having a hairy mouth, because he was a free spirit.
Maybe the Surgeons Won’t Do Anything
When researchers are developing a new drug, they don’t simply test the drug against a control group who take no pills at all. They test it against a control group who take placebos. The placebo effect is powerful, and even if a drug (say) relieves otherwise incurable pain in 25 percent of patients, maybe a placebo would do just as much good, proving the drug’s not a breakthrough after all.
You knew this. But have you thought about what happens when you apply that same logic to other kinds of medicine — including surgery?
See, with some operations, the effect is obvious. If we cut you open and deliver a baby via Caesarean, for example, there’s no question that we really accomplished something. Many other types of surgery, however, attempt to relieve symptoms, with less obvious effects. This includes some of the earliest types of surgery ever invented (drilling holes in the head) and also some more sophisticated stuff. The patient gets better afterward, but we don’t know if the procedure actually did that. Maybe the experience of being in the hospital and putting on that silly gown was what did the trick.
Sounds nuts, but actual examples exist. We used to have a procedure called an internal mammary artery ligation. When you complained of heart pain, surgeons would put you under, cut you open, tie knots in a few arteries, then stitch you back up. One-third of patients experienced relief, which wasn’t perfect, but it was something. Then in 1959, a Seattle doctor did an experiment: He divided angina sufferers into two groups. Half of them, he gave internal mammary artery ligations. The other half, he cut them open, but then he stitched them right up again without doing anything. This control group experienced just as much relief as the people who actually got the treatment, and so, the medical community realized artery tying is no better than a placebo.
That’s a victory for science, right? Well, maybe. But scientific opinion has gone back and forth about these placebo surgeries, which are also referred to as “sham surgeries,” even by proponents. Unlike a sugar pill, cutting someone open comes with many risks (like, you know, being set ablaze), so a sham surgery isn’t exactly like a placebo. And when researchers looked at every sham surgery study they could find, they noted something wrong with every one of them, so these may not be offering us such great data either.
Thanks to changing attitudes toward what ethical human experimentation means, sham surgeries stopped around the 1970s. Then, a few decades later, they came back again. Try signing up for one today. Maybe you’ll get a revolutionary procedure. Maybe you’ll get an untested, dangerous procedure. Maybe you won’t get any procedure, but they’ll slit you open anyway, and you’ll get hit with one of surgery’s many unpredictable side effects.
You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”