29 Surgeons Share Their Biggest ‘Oh Shit’ Moments From Serious Operations

Surgeons aren’t always as dependable as we want them to be. They make mistakes, just like everybody else does. So be warned: If you read through these terrifying comments on Reddit, you’ll want to cancel your next doctor’s appointment.
Twenty20, jasmom1
Twenty20, jasmom1

1. We ran a spike through a man’s eyeball

I was a junior doctor working in neurosurgery back in 2008 when one of the senior registrars (I suppose the equivalent is chief resident in the USA) told me his most unfortunate moment. In order to have a patients head stabilised for surgery he was using a frame that had a set of 3 spikes that held the head in place. Due to the angle he needed to approach from, this required the patient to be face down. As he was placing the head of the anaesthatised patient on to the frame the head slipped and his eye landed on to the spike, perforating the eyeball. Panicking and thinking that his career was now over, he then (rather bizarely) started poking at the eyeball trying to work out what was what until the anaesthetist told him to stop. They then called the ophthalmologist who came to tidy up what was now a completely ruined eye. After the surgery, terrified, he went to explain to the patient what had happened. Understandably fearing the worst, anger, distress and tears, received the response of “that’s OK I was blind in that eye anyway!”.

Luckiest bastard ever

2. We accidentally set a patient on fire

Way way back in the day pre-op was done with alcohol-based cleaners. Naked, sedated guy with a light sheen of cleaning fluid on him + static electric spark = fully engulfed in flames. Everyone just stood there for a second until someone grabbed a sheet and put out the flames. Surgery went well, no complications, slight sun tan.

3. We had trouble getting his guts back inside

We had a patient in the ICU who had some big abdomen trauma. He had gone to the OR and was too sick to be able to close his abdomen, so we left it open. We had a piece of plastic covering, like a bag, covering his intestines and then we placed a vacuumed sponge dressing on top of that, called a woundvac.

The patient’s nurse called me into the room to look at the abdomen because she thought she saw pieces of the bowel seeping out of the bag and getting sucked against the woundvac. I agreed and thought the bowel looked pretty dusky as well, so we called the doc to come and look at it.

The resident agreed and talked to his attending who told him to take the woundvac off, tuck the bowel back into the bag it had escaped from and put a new woundvac on.

It all just sounded like it was going to be a disaster, but whatever.

So, resident comes in, takes off the woundvac and the bowels had become very swollen from the fluids, trauma, etc… so when he took the woundvac off, they all slipped out of the patient. The bag had dislodged significantly. We would tuck the bowels in one side, they’d spill out the other. Here we had this guy in his bed, disemboweling and we simply could not get everything back in him, in the bag, or anything.

Luckily, the drugs we had the patient on kept him very nicely sedated and we had other drugs to control any problems with his blood pressure and the guy wasn’t overtly bleeding… it was MESSY. We really just had to step back and say “Well, shit. How do we get this guys guts back inside him!?”

Ended up having to call in 6 other people to help tuck things here and there until he could get back to the OR for them to get everything back into its proper place…

4. They dropped his appendix back into his body

My uncle did this in India.

After graduating college, he and his friends started a small hospital (yes, this is right after college and it just so happens, this kind of stuff happened years ago in India). Anyways, they are all really excited when their first patient requiring surgery walks in. He has appendicitis and they decide to take up the case as it is a simple surgery.

The beginning of the surgery goes well and they are able to cut off the appendix well, but while trying to extract it, they dropped it back into the body. They ended up operating just over 8 hours because they could not find the thing for a really long time (he says a normal surgery would take 1 hour).

5. Maggots came out of his legs

I was rounding a few months back and a guy gets wheeled into ICU smelling terrible. I walked over, and the dude had maybe the most macerated legs I have ever seen. There were things moving on the bed, and the suction container was full of maggots.

Turns out dude had been weaving on the road, and when police pulled him over and opened the doors, maggots fell onto the road. He got taken to the ER, arrested, taken up to ICU and very rapidly debrided, then bilateral above-knee amputated. He actually made it out of the hospital, but I cannot imagine waking up one day and having no legs.

I really wish I knew where he was driving, though…

6. A bull stomped on his own intestines

Veterinarian here. This happened in my 4th year of vet school. I watched a bull stomp his own intestines.

A very valuable bull had an obstruction in his intestines that needed to be removed. People will only put the amount of money a food animal is worth into surgery to fix it so we had to do this on the cheap. Full anesthesia on an animal that big is crazy expensive so we did a “standing” surgery. What that means is the bull is put in a chute, numbed up really well, and other than light sedation they are totally awake and standing for surgery.

So the surgeons make a 2-3 foot vertical incision in his right flank and start pulling out armfulls of intestines and handing them to me and the other vet student assistants. There’s a sterile drape on the bull and we’re all in full sterile gowns. The obstruction was pretty bad so they had to remove a couple feet of damaged intestines and then sew the ends back together. There is a lot of blood. A lot. The bull is starting to get stressed, impatient, and weak from blood loss. It starts kicking at the chute and trying to move. It gets more sedatives and the surgeons try to sew faster. Everyone is sweating and there’s a lot of swearing going on. The puddle of blood at our feet is getting bigger. The bull does a side shuffle and the intestines being held by another student are trapped between the bulls ribs and the metal bars of the chute. This is bad – even a few seconds of this can do permanent damage. The bull is too heavy to just shove over so they remove one of the side rails of the chute to free the intestines. The bull is getting really pissed off and now is trying to lunge from side to side and we are ordered to let go of the intestines we are holding to keep the bull from breaking our arms against the rails of the chute.

The bull is really freaking out and manages to get partially and then completely out of the chute and starts running around the room mooing and stomping and ripping huge chunks of intestines out of itself. Blood and guts are EVERYWHERE. GALLONS of blood. Keep in mind this room is in a barn and while the area around the chute was clean the rest of the room is covered in hay and dirt. Some huge guys manage to subdue the bull and wrestle it to the ground and they give it more sedatives and pain meds. My job was to sit on his shoulder, another bigger student is sitting on his head. Everything is a complete fucking fiasco at this point and I just felt so terrible for the poor bull who was bellowing non-stop. They wash off his mangled intestines as best as they can, stitch the ends together, dump a shit ton of penicillin in his abdomen and close him up.

The bull survived surgery and then was hospitalized and got tons of IV antibiotics and fluids and care. Every day his temperature got higher until he finally died a week later from a massive infection in his abdomen. So that was awful. I have absolutely no idea what they told the owner. As far as I know no one got sued.

7. The patient kept sliding off the table

A surgical table was malfunctioning going into full trendelburg (table tilts to a serious angle…) was tilting on its own and patient was sliding off the table the whole surgical team was holding on to the patient as i run in.. The fix was I slammed the controller against the floor a few times. Patient was ok, but blood everywhere…

8. We lost a needle inside of a man’s throat

We were putting up a central line for a drip with an 18G needle (1.2mm- relatively big compared to most needles) in the patient’s external jugular, and all of a sudden the needle went right into the jugular. We all started panicking because usually with a drip the needle is meant to come out and only the plastic remains, but now we had lost the needle inside this guy’s jugular.

Before we could even fish it out it was gone, I looked at the fellow surgeons and nurses and before we could do anything we rushed him right into theater. After a few minutes we fished the needle out near his subclavian vein- closer towards the shoulder- and we breathed a sigh of relief.

9. A med student passed out on the patient

Probably a medical student passing out face first into the wound, then falling backwards and cracking his skull on the floor. He starts bleeding from the head and isn’t moving. Just total silence for a few seconds. We didn’t know whether to laugh or yell at him or what. Heh. Luckily I didn’t have to have that talk with the family.

10. She opened her eyes during surgery

When my nurse accidentally gave my patient a lower dose of anesthesia during a heart surgery I was performing and the patient opened his eyes and screamed during the operation so we had to stop it… Scary shit.

11. He literally had to choose who lived and died

This isn’t my story, but my father is a surgeon. He was on call one night, when two people were brought into the ER on stretchers. One was a cop, and one was a criminal. There had been a gunfight, and both had been shot. At the time, the hospital was a small one, and my father was the only surgeon on call capable of performing the operation. Essentially, both were going to die if he didn’t intervene. He only had time to save one. Of course, he chose the cop, and he was able to save his life, much to the appreciation of the other officers at the hospital. But the criminal died shortly after.

He tells me that he never regretted that decision, and that he would have made the same choice a thousand times over. But dealing with the repercussions of the decision was difficult for him, regardless. Just a sobering moment when he was a new surgeon that stuck with him for a long time.

12. We butchered a male cat, because we thought it was female

Client brings his cat (found as a stray) to be spayed. The vet (my boss) preps cat for surgery and begins cutting…and can’t find the uterus or ovaries…

Uh oh. Cat is a male! And poor kitty just had his belly sliced open for no reason whatsoever. The owner was, understandably, furious.

13. My boss got sick and left the room

Yeah, this really happened to me when I was in training to be a cardiologist. I was in my 2nd or 3rd heart procedure/catherization when my senior doctor got sick, ripped of his surgical gown and ran out of the room. The doctor had just yelled “Oh , no!” and left. I had just positioned these catheters with wires into the sleeping patient’s heart. They were just hanging out there pulsating to his heart beat. Apparently, the doctor had gotten food poisoning and made a run for the bathroom…never to return.

So I’ve never made it to this point in the procedure before and am just wondering where to take it from here. I haven’t even been taught how to take them out safely. I’m looking at the vitals and monitors like F#@%, what do I do now? Of course they page my senior cardiology fellow in training who is taking a nap and not returning any pages or calls. No other doctors around. Finally, thank GOD, my tech/assistant who has done these procedures since before I was born gives me a nudge to flush the catheters, which I do, to prevent blood clots and death essentially. And after a few minutes properly removes the catheters and wires. They get treated like shit but have saved ALL of the fellows in training and senior doctors many, many times in complicated situations with their knowledge.

14. I witnessed massive blood loss

When I was a medic, I worked in the ER one night and this huge dude (maybe 300-350 lbs) came in from a car accident with the paramedics giving him CPR. We got to doing our job when it was decided that he would have to go to the OR as he eventually went asystole (flatlined).

I was new and my knowledge was pretty limited at the time, but I believe they were going to massage this guy’s heart. I was pretty relieved since we were all taking turns pumping this big ass man’s blood for him and we were beat. Shortly after he left I was talking to some of the medics/docs and they said that it would be a great experience for me to watch it in the OR room. So I scrubbed up really quick and went in to watch in the back and they were already about to start cutting this guy open. I watched in excitement as they were cutting through everything when suddenly. . .

blood burst out of this guy like a pot boiling over.

There was more blood than I have ever seen (and hopefully will never see again). I don’t remember anyone saying “Oh shit” but I remember everyone getting really quiet, the staff stepping back as the blood flowed out of him, on the table, falling on the floor and and crept until it got a couple feet away from me (I was like 6-8 feet away) most of them were standing in the lake of blood when it stopped. The surgeons said that it looked like at least 3 liters of blood that came out of him (they hadn’t seen that much blood come out at once either). It looked like some kind of Japanese horror scene afterwards and I think I was in shock because I felt so weird and out of place afterwards, watching them sew/clean him back up.

Later on, I ended up finding out that upon a closer look to the X-rays it showed that the man’s poor sternum gave way either from his chest hitting the steering wheel (yeah, he had no seat-belt on), the firefighters, paramedics or our CPR. The bone had splintered and punctured into his major vessels (aorta, pulmonary vein/artery) so we were pumping blood into his pericardium (heart sac) and that was what exploded when they cut him open. So there was little we could do to save this man’s life. After that episode I never was bothered by the sight of “massive blood loss” since I don’t think you could see anymore than that come out of a person.

15. We caused the patient to have a seizure

This happened to me while placing an IVC filter (a small metal filter that sits in the inferior vena cava to prevent blood clots from traveling from the legs to the lungs). The procedure basically includes tunneling into the femoral vein and traveling up into the vena cava where you leave the filter in place. In order to confirm your location in the body you have to use a radio lucent contrast and an XRay to light up the vena cava since you are basically looking from outside of the body. The scrub tech hands us 100cc of contrast and we inject it straight into the vena cava and watch on the X-ray while nothing lights up as it’s supposed to. Not able to figure out why we couldn’t see it we ask for another 100cc of contrast and again shoot it into the vena cave with no luck. At a loss as to what could be going on we think maybe that the contrast is bad and we draw up some more and look at the syringe under the X-ray before injecting this time. Of course the syringe does not light up and while we are trying to get some new contrast in the OR the patient on the table who is sedated and intubated begins to seize. We finally look over at the scrub techs table and realize what she has done and turns out she was drawing up 100cc (twice mind you) of lidocaine, a quick acting anesthetic which is not supposed to be injected directly into the central circulation of the body. Luckily the patient was not permanently harmed due to this medical error but I was working with a very seniored vascular surgeon at the time and I’ve never seen her look the slightest bit phased by anything she’s seen but when she realized we gave the patient that much lidocaine she looked like she was about to faint.

16. We couldn’t get the baby out

It gets very tense in an OR when you can’t quickly get a baby out during a C-Section.

17. The hospital didn’t have essential tools

My mom had gone in for surgery. Because the hospital didn’t have what they needed they had to have an essential part for the surgery shipped to them. The day comes for the surgery and my mom is prepped, the OR is prepped, the surgeon took the day off from his practice, and my mom is put under. The part they needed (a fluid I believe) arrived and a nurse said, “We never ordered that.” And sent the guy away. This is after my mom was under anesthesia. She said when she was being brought out of it she could see the surgeon losing his shit on these nurses and all them crying from how bad he flipping out on them. Rightfully so…those nurses at THAT hospital suck. The surgery was moved elsewhere and that was the last time he worked with that hospital.

18. He lost a full liter of blood in 60 seconds

A while back I was doing a hysterectomy and staging for cancer (I don’t want to give too many specifics for privacy purposes). We had the uterus, cervix, tubes and ovaries out and we had her abdomen open from sternum to pelvis. We were WAY down in the corners of the pelvis digging out lymph nodes when we found one about the size of a tennis ball with several large (and abnormal) blood vessels running in and out of it. We had to get it out but the blood supply was coming right off of a major vessel and was really hard to access. We clipped as many vessels as we could reach and then started cutting it out. We lost a full liter of blood in the next 60 seconds before we got full control of the bleeding and lost a total of 4 liters in the case. At one point the pelvis was filling with blood faster than the suction could get it out. Scary is hell at the time but it turned out ok.

19. I heard my doctor say, “Oh fuck”

I doubt you’ll get too many real stories. Mine is extremely rare (as I was the patient, but awake for the surgery) I was supposed to have a bump on my back removed. Nothing huge, just a lump of some kind. For insurance reasons they did it as an ambulatory in the OR of a hospital instead of the surgeon’s actual office.

So, I’m wide awake, face down in the OR. I had picked him as my surgeon because his main practice was plastic surgery. At the time I lifted weights a lot and spent a lot of time working my back. I wanted as small a scar as possible. I was vain.

He begins with the first incision… then goes for a second, larger… then goes deeper (I guess) and realizes the “bump” is just the extruding tip of a cyst that cut through my back to the back of my lungs. He wasn’t used to operating on alert patients… as soon as he realizes he just says, “OH FUCK”

That was the beginning of a 4hr surgery for which I was awake. What they cut out of me was the size of an adult fist. In closing the wound they drew in so much flesh (for lack of a better word because of my lack of medical understanding) that my right arm became essentially inflexible. I couldn’t lift weights for years. All that precious work shot down the drain. What an asshole I was.

20. The doctor almost cut an artery

Nurse here. I was assisting with a simple vasectomy and the doctor was having trouble differentiating the vas deferens from the testicular artery. I stopped him just before he cut the artery. If he cut that, the testicle would die… not to mention make a very bloody mess.

21. He dropped a tumor on the ground

Not a surgeon, but I’m a medschool student. A student two years older than me dropped a brain tumor on the floor on the first surgery he ever went on. The surgeon laughed at him, then told him to leave his operation room. He was devastated and never saw that surgeon again! But he still got a good evaluation for that rotation…!

22. I had to leave a patient behind

General surgeon, five years experience.

Maybe not my biggest, but one of my first Oh-Shits once I’d been set loose upon the world was just realizing that I couldn’t be in two places that I desperately needed to be at the same time.

There’s a certain vulnerability that happens when you’re scrubbed in on a case in the OR. You’re the captain of this particular ship, right now, and you really should have your whole focus dedicated to it and only it…

But sometimes you’re in there in the middle of the night or on a weekend, and your partners are all gone and there’s just a skeleton crew running the hospital. Your goddamned pager keeps going off and your phone keeps ringing and sometimes it’s just Nurse X on the floor who thinks her patient really, really needs an order for Tylenol at 2 AM even though the patient is asleep…

Sometimes the call is about how your patient is actively dying. Now. Right now. Heart attack. Stroke. Blood painting the walls of the room.

Everyone trying to communicate this to you is in the process of either trying to stop the dying-ness, or is just freaking the fuck out and begging you to come DO SOMETHING.

But you are elbows-deep in the viscera of another very ill person. You can’t really just drop what you’re doing and race upstairs. You have given an equally strong promise to both of these people that you will look after and protect them from harm–and you have to break that promise to one of them. You have to keep sailing that particular ship, otherwise both will go down.

If you’re lucky there’s an ICU team that can swoop in and help… or residents experienced enough to handle things… or a back-up partner who can ride to your rescue and bitch about “having to help out Junior all night” later.

Other times, there is literally nothing you can do except tell the nurse, “Do what you can. I’ll be up as soon as I’m done with the operation.”

23. I woke up on the operating table

Mine isn’t as gruesome as some these, but I figure I can share.

I have several herniated discs, pinched nerve, spinal spondylosis, etc etc… Went in for a major epidural. Most people get 1-2, but I was getting 6. Basically, they put you under, fit a needle in-between your discs and give you a shot. Well, it might have been due to the fact that I was taking some HEAVY dosages of narcotics already, but I woke up on the table.

It was kind of hazy, but I was definitely aware. I could feel a slightly burning/ fuzzy feeling in my back. It felt like butterflies, when your leg goes asleep, and a there-is-something-scraping-near-on-or-on-my-bones feeling. I could see a screen with a live X ray looking thing. ( I found out the surgeon watches the screen to guide the needle.)

Just as I could feel like I may be able to raise my head, I came to the realization one of the nurses kept repeating, “He’s awake!” Not too panicky, but definitely, like “Oh shit”. I wanted to tell her to relax, but by then someone walked up to one of the IVs and I was back to sleep.

All in all it was a win. I threw a bitch fit about how good the fruit juice was, so they gave me the whole container, and I tried to fight the nurses trying to dress me, because my girlfriend was waiting outside on me. She thought it was cute, so she obliged and brought me to Wendy’s per my request. I then ordered over $20 of food, got home, and ate non of it.

Good times.

24. I cut through their bone with a saw

Not quite a surgeon, but somewhat medical. I was bisecting someone’s leg (deceased) and i did not know that said person had a metal rod through their femur. Proceed to cut through the bone with a metal saw. Sparks fly and my blade broke. Luckily I was standing off to the side, instead of directly behind the blade, as it flew backwards and hit the wall. The clothes the person had been wearing were lying underneath the body and caught a spark. I doused it with the water hose before a large flame could start, but still an “oh shit” moment.

25. She dropped his bone onto the floor

Not a surgeon, but I was observing a hand surgery about a year ago at a teaching hospital. The surgeon was removing one of the carpals (the bones near the base of the hand) to be used later. A nurse was given the carpal to hold until it needed to be used. She ended up dropping the patient’s bone on the ground.

26. She had 12 hours of surgery for a simple procedure

A resident was putting in a trochar and mis-placed it, sliced open the AORTA… 12 hours of surgery to repair, she was going in for a simple procedure.

27. I had no idea how C-sections worked

My first C-Section was quite the shocker, but after that not a lot fased me anymore. This event occurred during one of my internships as a highschooler to see if medicine would be my field. Why, I’m not sure, but they let me attend a C-Section.

They placed me at the feet of the woman that was numb chest down. I give her a little nod and the operation starts. Well, no one had thought to tell me that once the belly is cut, the liquids go out too. This is a logical thing, but I was seated at least 3 meters from the feet of said woman and the fluids gushing from her abdomen came all the way to my feet. Here is me, standing in a woman’s pregnancy fluids. Oh. Fuck. I must have looked very shocked because the other surgeons had a laugh about my reaction. Ever since, I’ve not been shocked once.

28. My dentist accidentally broke my jaw

Patient here, but I have a good “oh shit” surgery story.

When I was 18 I was told to get my impacted wisdom teeth removed. I went to a surgeon who informed me that they were pretty much formed and I would be put on general anesthetic (totally asleep) and the teeth would be broken up to be removed.

Day of surgery, I go in. Because of how fucked up you get on anesthetic, my mother was scheduled to pick me up after a couple of hours. She arrived and was informed that I was still in surgery. After nearly another two hours of waiting, she felt like something wasn’t right and called my father. He came in and was likewise informed I was still in surgery. At some point they finally said they wanted to see me and threatened to call the cops.

It was then revealed that my jaw had been broken.

Instead of breaking up my wisdom teeth, the surgeon had tried to take them out in one piece, and on the very first tooth, he snapped my mandible. It popped up into the muscles in the back part of my cheek, coming up against two nerves. (Trigeminal and facial.) He wired it shut in a panic, without consent or an X-ray. Turns out the reason you take an x-ray is because you need to make sure the bone is set. My bone was not set.

Over the course of the next two weeks, the bone didn’t heal because it wasn’t set correctly, and instead it slowly sawed through my trigeminal nerve, destroying sensation in the lower right half of my face. I looked like a stroke victim because I had very little control over it. (It’s since gotten better and moves more or less with the rest of my face but I don’t have as much control there as I should and sometimes I bite it and do a lot of damage since I can’t feel it.) This was probably the most pain I’ve ever been in in my entire life; I took liquid vicodin (remember, jaw wired shut!) every 2 hours, could barely sleep, and needed help with tasks like walking up stairs and going to the bathroom because of the pain and the drugs. It was hell on earth.

We eventually found a doctor to fix it; he had to re-set the bone. This was about a 6 hour surgery and a 2-night hospital stay. The bone was so badly out of whack that it needed a plate and seven screws installed to stabilise it. My jaw was wired another 10 weeks while that healed and of course the nerve damage is permanent. You can definitely tell which side was busted, from both the surgery scar and the lop-sided smile.

The original doctor who broke it refused to admit responsibility or pay any of the damages (presumably he was told by malpractice lawyers never to admit to fucking up) so I sued for that; in the deposition he said he broke up the tooth, which of course he hadn’t. I had the tooth to prove he was lying, after which we settled for the amount of damage. But about 75% of it ended up going to things like lawyer fees so I still came out behind on all that.

But I have a wicked scar on my neck from the surgery and my other three wisdom teeth (two of which cut through! yay!), so I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

29. Meetings were much scarier than surgeries

The medical stuff really becomes a blur. Complications, bad outcomes, crazy patients… I dunno, but after a few years even the bad stuff just becomes part of the routine. But there was one moment that still sticks with me from training…

I was called into a meeting with the program director, which is never a good thing, and I wasn’t entirely sure why. He makes some small talk, then start asking about one of the junior residents who had been on my service. Definitely one of the weaker residents, but hard working and likable. I start talking about her performance and her relationship with the other residents, her strengths and weaknesses, etc.

After a minute I came to the horrible realization he wasn’t just asking about her, he was gathering ammunition to fire her and I was part of the firing squad. I jammed on the breaks and tried to talk her up, talking about her work ethic, and how well she got along with the nurses and the team. But we both knew it was a done deal before I sat down.

I dunno why it bothered me so much, compared to kids who burned to death and the like. But that sudden realization while I was sitting there that someone I kinda liked personally, who had spent most of their adult life struggling in undergrad, medical school, and the lab, who had what I suspect was six figure debt, was about to get their career destroyed just stunned me.

I don’t know if she was going to be an unsafe doctor. I think the fact we liked her allowed her to slide further than she should have, in retrospect. But of all the terrible things that happened in residency, that’s the one I think about most often. TC mark

The truth is that you can be struggling and still be loved.

You don’t have to solve your whole life tonight. You just have to show up and try. Focus on the most immediate thing in front of you. You’ll figure out the rest along the way.

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