Surgeons should take seriously patient complaints of pain after surgery

Laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgeries are popular and common because they cause less scarring and usually require less downtime.

The most common problem that we hear about from potential clients calling Painter Law Firm is the unintended injury of the nearby organ during surgery. The most common of these iatrogenic (healthcare-acquired) injuries are lacerated or torn bowel, stomach, liver, or spleen. These injuries are more difficult to spot during surgery because the surgeon is working with equipment and a camera inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.

It would be unusual for a surgical expert to find that the accidental injury of the nearby organ during laparoscopic surgery was negligent or violated the standard of care. Instead, these unfortunate injuries are considered known complications of the surgical procedure.

The problem for patient safety and medical malpractice liability lies in the post-operative diagnosis and treatment. While most surgeons are technically competent in the operating room, many of them leave much to be desired when it comes to post-operative communications, monitoring, and treatment of their patients.

While surgery is frightening to virtually any patient, it’s routine to surgeons—it’s what they do every day. They realize that every single patient will have post-operative pain and that there’s tremendous variability in the way that patients perceive and manage pain. Some patients barely mention pain that other patients would consider excruciating and unbearable.

Based on these experiences, some surgeons make the mistake of allowing a bias to set in. These surgeons automatically think that any time a patient complains of pain, it’s within that normal expected range after surgery. The problem to patient safety is that, although that may well often be the case, it’s not always.

Surgical experts realize that severe pain is one of the earliest complaints of patients who’ve had an internal organ damaged during minimally invasive surgery. It’s dangerous when surgeons and their front office staff don’t pay attention to this information, but unfortunately it happens all the time.

This is the situation that happened in a recent Georgia case, where the jury awarded $3 million to the wrongful death beneficiaries of a woman who died after her bowel was perforated during a laparoscopic abdominal surgery.

Shortly after the patient was discharged home following surgery, she started having pain. A family member contacted the hospital and spoke to someone who advised her to feed the patient broth and get her up and walking.

Eventually the pain worsened to the point that they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital emergency room.  An abdominal CT scan wasn’t definitive and bloodwork revealed that she already had gone into sepsis. Even with a low-grade fever and sepsis, she was sent home.

Within four days of her surgery, despite several calls to the hospital because the patient was getting worse, the woman died. After an autopsy, the cause of death was determined to be peritonitis due to a perforation of the small intestine.

At trial, the medical expert for the plaintiffs testified that the surgeon perforated the patient’s small bowel during the laparoscopic procedure, but failed to diagnose or repair the accidental injury. The plaintiffs were also critical of the post-operative surgical and hospital care of downplaying the patient’s complaints of pain.

I found it interesting, but not surprising, that the defense attorney used a well-worn argument, which I’ve encountered in several perforated bowel medical malpractice cases. The argument goes like this: The surgeon didn’t actually perforate a bowel in the operating room. There was a partial-thickness tear that developed over time into a full-thickness tear. There was no way that the surgeon or other healthcare providers could have known about it.

Well, the jury disagreed, and awarded the family $3 million. Perhaps the jury realized that if the surgeon and hospital would have just paid attention to the patient’s complaints about her own body, they could have fixed the problem long before she needlessly passed away.

If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor surgical care in Texas, then contact a top-rated experienced Texas medical malpractice lawyer about your potential case.

Robert Painter
Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.