5 surgeries, 3 weeks in a coma later ...

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After I almost died from medical errors, it took me years to discover the truth. Here is some of what I learned.

I entered a hospital for a laparoscopic hysterectomy, a surgery performed using cameras and instruments inserted through tiny holes into the body. Everyone thought my surgery went fine. No one knew I was slowly dying after surgeons unknowingly damaged my small intestine. Late that night, my bowel broke open in two places, and I began to experience excruciating, unremitting pain. There is no such thing as simple or routine surgery. Anything can go wrong at any time.

As morning came, I moaned in agony while eight new doctors assumed my pain was from leftover carbon dioxide gas pumped into my abdomen during the surgery. My attending surgeon was in another part of the state. No one had been assigned to oversee my care. There was no one to teach the new doctors that a perforated bowel is a well-known, potentially fatal complication of gastrointestinal surgery. If undetected, death will eventually come.

By the third day, I was rushed to emergency surgery where things got worse. A student nurse anesthetist incorrectly placed a breathing tube down my throat causing me to aspirate. A gallon of barium dye infiltrated my lungs, causing chemical burns and aspiration pneumonia. In addition to peritonitis from my leaking bowel, I developed acute respiratory distress syndrome and raging new infections, including sepsis. I was moved to a surgical intensive care unit. Everyone thought I would die.

After five surgeries and three weeks in a coma, I was finally taken off the ventilator. I woke up psychotic. Once I realized where I was, I vowed to write a book. But what had gone wrong? How did one surgery turn into five? How did one day turn into a month? I had lost all memory from the morning I was admitted until three weeks later. After leaving the ICU, I remained in the hospital for nine more days, awake and alert, waiting for someone to explain what had happened to me. No one ever came. After a week and a half, I was discharged. The hospital never told me that anything had gone wrong. My surgeon said very little.

Third leading cause of death

I arrived home so weak I could barely move. I had lost 20 pounds of mostly muscle mass. I could not bathe, dress, eat or walk without someone helping me. Fluid continuously drained through tubing from a large hole in my abdomen into a wound vac machine, which I would use 24/7 for two more months. I could not work until the following year. Eventually, I had to undergo major surgery (at a different hospital) to put my stomach back together.

Although I was a nurse and nursing professor, I had no idea that preventable medical errors are the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. Or that estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of patients who die each year because of medical errors and adverse events that did not have to happen. Many more patients, like me, survive with complications that may affect the rest of their lives.

It took me years to understand how the medical system is often rigged against patients. That too often hospitals value secrecy over transparency. That physicians and hospital administrators often hide the truth about medical errors. That patients and families may never learn what went wrong. That corporate profit and training doctors are often valued over patient safety.

Our hospitals have betrayed us. Administrators, risk managers, doctors, attorneys, insurance companies and others often cover up these errors and argue over how to account for the deaths. Without a more transparent health care system committed to safer care, you or someone you love may die from medical errors that could have been prevented. If hundreds of thousands of people in this country died every year from airline crashes, would we not be actively working to identify and correct the problems?

Donna Helen Crisp of Asheville is a nurse ethicist and author of the memoir, “Anatomy of Medical Errors: The Patient in Room 2.”