35 Doctors And Patients Share Their Worst Misdiagnoses And Doctor Horror Stories
I missed a gunshot wound once. A guy was dumped off at the ER covered in blood after a rap concert. We were all focused on a gunshot wound with an arterial bleed that was distracting. The nurse placed the blood pressure cuff over the gunshot wound on the arm. We all missed it because the blood pressure cuff slowed the bleeding.I was doing the secondary assessment when we rolled the patient, and I still missed it.
We didn’t find it till the chest x-ray. The bullet came of rest in the posterior portion of the thoracic wall without significant trauma to major organs.The patient lived. But I still feel like I fucked up big time.
Pathologist here. Biggest mistake I ever made was cutting myself during an autopsy on an HIV patient. Lucky for me, I did not acquire the virus, so everything had a happy ending. (For me, anyway. That guy was still dead.)
As a very young doctor in training I misdiagnosed a woman with epilepsy. Some years prior she had sustained a gunshot wound to the frontal area, damaging the underside of one of her frontal lobes and severing an optic nerve to one of her eyes, as well as some of the muscles that rotated that eyeball. Surgery saved her life but the frontal lobe was scarred and the eye was blinded and always pointed down and at an angle away from her nose. A few years after that she began having spells of bizarre sensations, altered awareness, a pounding in the chest, and she had to sit down, stop what she was doing, and couldn’t speak. These were odd spells and I assumed she had developed frontal lobe epilepsy from the scar on her brain. Increasing doses of anti-seizure drugs seemed to work initially, but then the spells came back.
A couple years after my diagnosis her endocrinologist, who treated her for diabetes mellitus, checked a thyroid. It was super-high. The spells were manifestations of hyperthyroidism. She drank the radioactive iodine cocktail, which ablated her thyroid, got on thyroid replacement therapy, and felt well thereafter. No permanent harm done and she was able to come off the anti epilepsy drugs.
4. “Oh Shit”
Not me, but my mom. She just retired as an ob/gyn and she told me about a time early on in her career when, while not a real medical mistake, she still almost ruined the operation. She was performing a c-section I think, and she dropped her scalpel on the floor. Before she could think, she blurted out “oh shit” as a reaction. The mother, thinking something was wrong with the baby, started panicking. It took a team of nurses, the husband, and the mother of the patient to calm her down.
I’m a nurse, but I was working in the ER when a guy came in for a scratch on his neck and “feeling drowsy”. We start the usual workups and this dude’s blood pressure TANKED. We scrambled, but he was dead within 10 minutes of walking through the door. Turns out the “scratch” was an exit wound of a .22 caliber rifle round. The guy didn’t even know he’d been shot. When the coroner’s report came back, we found that he’d been shot in the leg and the bullet tracked through his torso shredding everything in between. There was really nothing we could’ve done, but that was a serious “what the fuck just happened” moment.
My grandmother has had diabetes for about 20 years, and takes a handful of meds to help control it. About 10 years ago, she developed a persistent cough. It wasn’t bad, she said it felt like a constant tickle in the back of her throat. She went to her doctor to find out what was going on, and he ordered a battery of tests concerned that she was developing pneumonia, lung cancer, etc. All the tests came back negative, so he prescribed a cocktail of pills to help combat it. Over the span of 5 years, she had tried about 35 different meds and none helped.
One day when she went it for a routine check-up, her normal doc was out and she saw one of the on-call residents. He looked at the barrage of pills she was on and asked why. When she explained, he replied, “Oh, the cough is a side effect of this one particular drug you’re on to regulate your insulin. If we change you to this other one, it will go away.”
PharmD here. Couple different quick stories.
Heard of a pharmacist who filled a fentanyl patch incorrectly and the dose was so high that the patient went into severe respiratory depression and died. They’re still practicing.
Worked with another pharmacist back in the mid 2000′s when I was still a tech who filled a script for Prozac solution (concentrated it is 20mg per mL. Average adult dose is 20 mg.) instead of 1 mL once daily he filled it for one teaspoonful (5 mL). The child got serotonin syndrome and almost died. He is no longer working to my knowledge.
My dad took a brain home once. He was a pathologist. He also got drunk at work a lot.
As an ICU nurse, I’ve seen the decisions of some Doctors result in death. Families often times don’t know, but it happens more than you’d think. It usually happens on very sick patients that ultimately would have died within 6 months or so anyway, though.
Procedural wise, I have seen a physician kill a patient by puncturing their heart while placing a pleural chest tube. It was basically a freak thing as apparently the patient had recently had cardiothoracic surgery and the heart adhered within the cavity at an odd position. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he came to the realization of what had happened. You rarely see people accidentally kill someone in such a direct way. Heartbreaking.
I’m a nurse. I’ve given an anticoagulant (blood thinner) to the wrong patient. Over the next day his red blood count Dropped. He ended up in ICU.
11. Camp Nurse Story
My first day as a camp nurse for people with intellectual disabilities I gave 9 pills to the wrong guest. I didn’t know who I was looking for and asked my friend to send out the guest. His hypochondriac roommate walks out, tells me he is the person I’m looking for, I asked my friend for confirmation who THOUGHT the correct person had come to me and confirmed from afar that it was, and I administered the meds. He had a LOT of drug allergies. Stomach dropped when the actual person I was looking for came out 12 seconds later.
Luckily, we called poison control and most of the pills were vitamins and the ones that weren’t were either similar to ones the guy was already taking, or in therapeutic low-dose form. He was fine and still continued to ask for everyone else’s pills at all times.
Worked there two summers and thankfully had no other disasters like this one.
12. Dentist Blunder
Dentist here. I was performing a simple extraction and preparing for the case when I didn’t realize that I had the x-ray flipped the wrong way the whole time. I was viewing the film backwards, and pulled out the wrong tooth. When I realized my mistake I started freaking out, only to find out that by some dumb luck, the tooth I extracted had to go as well.
For the record, this happened in dental school, so safe to say it was a learning experience. It was my first and very last time to make that mistake…And yes, we are doctors.
I had a 9-year-old girl bought in one night with her parents complaining of fever and respiratory distress, presenting with coughing and wheezing. The kid was really out of it and the parents were very upset. I thought it was Bronchitis, but I admitted her and ordered treatment for her fever and cough as well as throat cultures.
I was with another patient when the kid started hallucinating, sobbing and spewing everywhere. I figured it had to do with the fever, so I packed her with ice, but she died maybe a half hour after that. This wasn’t my first death, but it was one of the worst. I couldn’t tell the stiff neck since the kid was out of it. She also couldn’t tell me anything else that would point to simple or complex seizures.
She died of Neisseria meningitides. Completely wrong diagnosis. To make matters worse, we called in all her schoolmates and anyone else we could wake up just in time to see three other kids go. The rest got antibiotics quickly enough. Probably my worst day in medicine.
14. C-Section Scare
Here is a good one I didn’t cause but “saved the day” as a resident that was surgically assisting. C-section for failure to progress and ugly looking fetal strip…all went perfect, time to take cord blood and I am to fill up the test tube. Surgeon looks at it and it has one very large chunk of glass broken off of the rim (3x4cm). There is an open abdomen in front of us with blood clots everywhere. So as safely as possible we are sticking our hands around to try and find this glass…if it is inside the abdomen the chance of even seeing it on x-ray is minimal and this will dice up this patients bowels/blood vessels and God knows what else. After approx. 3-4 min (felt like 10) I feel an edge of something firm just inside the edge of the incision…pull up a blood clot with the glass piece inside…didn’t go into the cavity and all is well. Surgeon said she’d buy me a drink. Never did get it.
15. IV Mishap
A mistake I have made was not checking the IV medications that were going into a patient I had been taking care of for five months straight. I knew their medications and doses back-to-front, so I neglected to do the safety checks required at the beginning of the shift to ensure that the right medication was going at the right dose. Turns out that two of the medications were switched, so they were getting a higher dose of one and a lower dose of the other. The medications (dobutamine and nesiritide) are not forgiving, but fortunately the different rates were almost negligible. At that point, that patient had become a friend and I was their advocate. I fucked up, and told them straight up that I did. Even though I wasn’t the one that set those meds up incorrectly, I didn’t check because I thought I knew better. The patient forgave me, for which I am grateful, and my ICU director also appreciated the fact that I took full responsibility for my fuck-up, but I can tell you that I still feel bad and will forever check my drips upon assuming care of a patient.
16. Tragic Stories
I’m a surgical resident and my focus is on pediatrics. I have done a fair amount of surgeries so far and death is not an uncommon thing for me. But the worst was a case with a then 8-year-old kid. I was operating on his ulnar and accidentally caused damage on the nearby nerve. He lost about 20% of his sensory stimulus.
He wanted to be a violinist.
My friend who did internal med missed diagnosed a woman a simple case of splenitis. Turned out she had an ectopic pregnancy. When he found out it was already too late, she bled to death internally.
I saw a patient once years ago for abdominal pain. She had had an IUD placed back in the 70s, a dalkon shield. Upon follow up, the gyn couldn’t find the string so he told her she must have passed it. Well guess what- she passed in alright. We found it in the retroperitoneal space near her right kidney 17 years later!! She wanted to sue him but he had retired.
I’m in the military, and as I’ve gotten closer to 40, it seems I’ve begun to develop high blood pressure. On-base doctor insisted I needed medication to control it, so he wrote a prescription. To be honest, I hadn’t seen this doc before and seemed a bit…. off. Not sure how to describe it, but he just seemed a bit less than completely there.
Anyways, I walk down to the pharmacy area and wait my turn. I’m called forward and the pharmacy tech asks for my ID, looks up the order, and asks me some basic questions. “Name”, “Date of Birth”, and “Allergies”. I told her I was allergic to penicillin and sulfa.
The prescription was for Hyzaar. Any medical student can probably tell you moronic this order was. Hyzaar specifically has side effects for those with allergies to penicillin or sulfa. I’m allergic to both.
The tech actually said out loud “What in the actual fuck!”. She calls the doctor on the phone and starts chewing his ass. Keep in mind she’s a civilian and he’s a commissioned officer. Neither of them “outrank” the other, so he’s arguing back with her, and then she says, “Your pill popping is fucking over. You could have killed this patient today because you’re always too high to know what’s going on around you. I’m going to the wing commander over this.”
To shorten the story a bit, it’s brought before an ethics board and a court-martial. Seems he was “trading scripts” with other doctors in the area for pain pills, was high nearly every waking moment, and could have actually killed me. He received a sentence of over 1 year. I’m being a bit purposefully vague to prevent anyone from tracking me down personally (as I had to testify).
Not a doctor, but in 2005 my father went to the doctor complaining of chest pain. The doctor assured him it was heartburn and sent him home with Tums and no further testing. My father came home and died of a heart attack later that day.
So yeah, I’d say that guy messed up bad.
Not a big mistake but definitely awkward at the time. I was gluing up a lac on a 14yo girls forehead. Anyone who has used derma bond before knows that stuff can be runny and bonds very quickly. I glued my glove to her face. Her mum was in the room, and I had to turn to her and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve just glued my glove to her face.”
21. Destroyed Ankle
Patient here. A doctor tried to put an Ilizarov fixator on me, for limb lengthening, without proper knowledge or experience. He damaged the growth cartilage, dislodged my fibula and destroyed my ankle.
I had to get 20+ more surgeries to fix his error. The initial procedure was something that another experienced doctor would’ve done in two minor surgeries over the course of 6 months. (I was 2 years old when he botched the surgery, 18 when I finally finished the reconstructions).
22. Silver Linings
My brother had a mic-key put in his stomach so that he can be fed through a g-tube due to aspiration risks secondary to cerebral palsy. During the surgery, the surgeon accidentally perforated his bowel and it went unnoticed. This is probably due to my brother’s unusual anatomy as he has severe scoliosis and kyphosis. My mom started to notice my brother appeared to be in pain. He, however, had no way of telling her what was wrong (non-verbal and no control of muscle movements). She then noticed the smell of feces coming out of his incision site. His medical team assured her he was alright and she was overreacting. It was soon discovered that he was going septic as his digested food was going back into his stomach and poisoning him. By this time he was in life-threatening condition and had to be air lifted to a city a four-hour drive away. The perforated bowel was repaired and my brother made a full recovery. His surgeon now does that procedure differently to prevent the same complication and I’ve been told it’s been effective. I believe he does and endoscopy before closing up and that adds 5-10 minutes to the surgery. My parents had no interest in suing and are glad my brother is healthy and his situation helped advance medicine/possibly save others.
23. Radiation Horror
I worked in a radiology department in a trauma center and the amount of “redo” x-rays and CT scans we’d do to a simple careless error was mind boggling. Nobody seemed to care but I would cringe every time. So much needless extra radiation on some patients because the techs were lazy.
One doctor never wore shielding during some procedures. Amazing.
My brother is a surgeon, and during part of his residency, he had to work in the pediatric unit. He was working with two newborns. One was getting much better and fighting for life. He was going to make it just fine. The other baby was hours from death. He wasn’t going to make it. My brother was in charge of informing the families. My brother realized about 15 minutes later that he had mixed up the families. He told the family with the healthy baby that their baby wasn’t going to make it, and he told the family with the dying baby that their baby was going to be just fine. He then had to go back out to the families and explain the situation to them. How devastating. To be given a glimmer of hope and have it ripped away from you not even an hour later. That was the most upset I’ve heard my brother.
He felt destroyed.
Chaotic day in ortho trauma. We were doing an intramedullary nail for a nasty tibia fracture. To put these things in, you have to make some small incisions, and some really tiny ones. Being so busy that day, the chief resident told me to scrub out and help set up and get started in another room. I deliberately told him I hadn’t closed every cut yet. About 5 days go by and patient comes in for follow up screaming at the chief because he forgot to sew up one of the incisions. He was black and he blamed the chief of being racist. It was incredibly awkward and I can’t help but feel like some of it was my fault.
I’m no doctor, but I remember when I was 10, I got appendicitis. No biggie, right? So after some time, they performed the surgery and about a week later, I left the hospital. 3 months later, I was getting stomach pains again. ‘I shouldn’t be getting pain over there’ I thought. So I assumed that I had a bad stomachache and continued my day. Later that day, I had started eating lunch, and the pains got really bad. So my parents and I went back to the hospital. Turns out the doctor messed up and only took out a portion of the appendix and still left a chance of it bursting. The worst part about it was the first time that I got it, I got a “really good” doctor, but he goofed. Second time around, they got some new guy, and he did it perfectly.
Nursing student here, my instructor told us about a colleague she had one time that was not a top notch nurse and was very impatient and really just there to collect a check. Well on this one sad day this nurse was giving a medicine that didn’t really require any specific infusion time to a new mother (literally had given birth like 8hrs ago) so she just set the pump to full throttle and let the meds run and left. Well fast-forward and the lady now had to have Heparin and the nurse put it in and didn’t change the IV setting. So now Heparin is flowing in this lady full throttle at whatever the highest rate an IV pump will go. She left without catching it. And a short time later the husband was coming out screaming something was terribly wrong with her. But she was already dead. They said her abdomen was swollen like she was pregnant again from blood just pooling there. That makes me scared to graduate!!!
ER PA here, made lots of mistakes, biggest I can think of off hand is missing an open (compound) fracture and the guy ended up needing to be opened up and put on antibiotics before his wrist was repaired. I’ve had so many that I sent home even after specialty consult only to have them die a week or two later. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do. And the scary thing isn’t the mistake you know you made, it is the one you never discover or learn from.
Dr. Brian Goldman did a very interesting TED Talk on this very subject.
I’m a veterinarian… in general the biggest mistake I can make is to trust my clients to do the right things for their pets. The second biggest mistake is to assume all clients won’t do the right thing.
One lady went out and purchased her own insulin syringes when she ran out instead of calling for a new prescription – she got the wrong size, overdosed her cat, and the kitty died from complications of hypoglycemia. Another lady stopped giving her dog insulin at night and feeding it appropriately because she “goes to bed too early to give the insulin” and “the food is really really expensive.” Another lady told us her insulin fell and broke, and asked us to refill the prescription. Prescribing doctor was out, so I didn’t fill it and it slipped my mind… almost a week later she came in because the cat was ill. He went into diabetic ketoacidosis and died.
I have double-dosed a horse with a kidney-toxic medication, forgotten to follow up with a dog with heart worms to figure out how to get him treated, waited to diagnose a dog with a small mass on her leg until it became the size of a softball and was almost unable to be treated, didn’t run a parvo test on a puppy that ended up having parvo and dying due to lack of supportive care.
31. Misdiagnosed STD
Emergency physician diagnosed me with an STD after one of my testicles started swelling and I was peeing blood. The guy didn’t even give me a specific STD, but it was very distressing and hurt the relationship I was in at the time as I incorrectly accused my girlfriend of cheating. Went to see my physician, turns out it was a simple urinary infection and I just needed antibacterial…
Doctor told my sister her breathing problems were due to allergies, 3 days later she’s being flown to a hospital due to respiratory failure.
My dad had an interesting misdiagnosis a few years back. Since my dad was about 20 or so, he noticed that two of his ribs (opposite each other) stuck out slightly more than the others. He thought nothing of it, and his doctors always told him not to worry about it. It was especially pronounced when he was lying on his back – the two ribs stuck out about an inch above the others.
Anyway, one day he was forced to see a different doctor for his checkup for one reason or another. The doctor noticed his ribs and asked a few questions. He then strongly recommended that my dad get an MRI done on his brain, as he suspected something might be affecting the bone growth.
Sure enough, they found a golf-ball sized tumor. They removed it without issue and he’s been doing fine since. He switched to that doctor permanently.
34. A Warning
My parents are nurses. They knew a doc who’d been on a 36 hour shift. Patient came in with a punctured lung (I think) and the doc had to collapse the lung to fix whatever was wrong with it.
Through tiredness he collapsed the wrong lung, and the patient died. Doc ended up killing himself after being fired.
Don’t burn yourself out.
Not my mistake but happened to me when I was in an Intensive Care Unit after having major bowel surgery.
Was put on a drip as I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything for a couple of weeks, but god I was thirsty oh so thirsty for a couple of days. I was allowed to rinse my mouth with water but couldn’t swallow it.
They had set the drip at a rate instead of 200mls an hour to either 20 or 2mls an hour, I can’t really remember. But it was only my constant whining that made them finally realize something wasn’t right.
A | A | A
At first, the silence of my life was nauseating and noticeable.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Some controversy ensued.
While living in Milan I developed a strong addiction to coffee. I blame the Italians. Damn you skilled barristers and your exceptional coffee beans!
Will it feel the same when you tell me you love me over the phone? Will the peacefulness of those words still floor me from thousands of miles away?