Cancer patient has questions after operation mix-up

Cancer patient has questions after operation mix-up »Play Video
Sarah Christensen, shown here with her husband, Brandon, and their 9-month-old baby, says she thinks her doctor didn't notice a discrepancy in her cancer report and operated in the wrong spot.

PORTLAND, Ore. - A 25-year-old new mom already battling cancer for the second time says her doctor operated in the wrong spot.

Sarah Christensen says it was something she thinks she could have prevented.

Her husband, Brandon, works two jobs, they care for a 9-month-old baby, and they all share an apartment with her sister’s family in Southeast Portland. She first had cancer in 2008 but recently got the news that it had returned.

"They're thinking that the pregnancy brought it back," Christensen said. "I had a little bit left and the estrogen and all that from the pregnancy increased it to grow."

In March, she had surgery she says to remove four cancerous lymph nodes toward the back of her neck. She went for a follow-up with her doctor:

"He came in and he was kind of teary-eyed, and he just looked at me and said, 'We need to talk,' Christensen said. "And my mom was there with me, and so we were both like, what could this be, what now? And he said, 'I messed up, I read the report wrong. They reported it wrong, and you need more surgery.' I just looked at him, and I cried, I was like, 'I can't take care of my baby as it is.'"

She says the lymph nodes the doctor removed were cancer free. So in April she had a second round of surgery, she says, at the front of her neck, in the right spot, where the doctor correctly removed a piece of cancerous tissue. She was left with a seven-inch scar, complications and lots of questions for her and her husband.

"When you're cutting someone open and taking stuff out you probably want to make sure that you're cutting open the right area and taking out the right stuff," Brandon Christensen said.

The couple is waiting for copies of Sarah's medical records. From what she says, the doctor told her in one paragraph the cancer report told the surgeon to operate toward the back of the neck. But in another paragraph it said the cancer was in the front of her neck.

Christensen believes the doctor missed the discrepancy.

"I should have asked to look at the report myself before the first surgery," she said. "I come from a medical office background, so I feel like if I would have looked at it, I might have caught it."

According to recent studies, there are several main causes of what's called "wrong-site" surgery: mixing up the left and right sides, diagnosis errors, communication problems, including staff members afraid to speak up against a doctor's judgment, and a big problem is a lack of what's called a "time out." That means once the patient is in the operating room, everyone pauses to double check the patient's identity, diagnosis and procedure.

Christensen said she wishes she insisted on a second opinion, which may have prevented a double dose of pain.

"It's hard to cope with everything that has happened," she said.

According to Oregon Patient Safety Commission, last year there were seven "wrong-site" surgeries in Oregon and one had deadly consequences. Statistics for Washington aren't complete, but accourding to the Washington Patient Safety Coalition there were at least 16 "wrong-site" surgeries last year.

The Joint Comission, which is the national organization that accredits hospitals, estimates it happens 40 times a week across the country.

In a recently released video, that organization launched a new program to help hospitals with procedures to eliminate mistakes.

The video briefly featured a story KATU did on Jesse Matlock. The Vancouver boy went in for eye surgery and his parents say the Portland doctor operated on the wrong eye.

The medical field also calls these kinds of medical mistakes, "never events," because they should never happen.

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