Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Left Testicle Would Have Been Right


Most patients are nervous before undergoing a surgical procedure, however routine. High anxiety and the fear of unexpected outcomes are often more burdensome than the actual recovery process. Though our imaginations cause us to anticipate the worst-possible-scenario, rare medical errors can sometimes transform these worries into reality.

Benjamin Houghton, an Air Force veteran, received chemotherapy for metastatic testicular cancer over 10 years ago (1). Though he has been in remittance ever since, Houghton has experienced atrophy and considerable discomfort in his left testicle (1). In June, Houghton agreed to have his left testicle surgically removed at the Los Angeles VA Medical Center. In addition, he expected to have a vasectomy performed on his right testicle. His surgeon, a fifth year surgical resident, had Houghton sign an informed consent on the morning of his scheduled surgery (1). According to Houghton and his wife, the surgeon claimed that the form outlined the surgery details they had already discussed. Houghton, who was not wearing his glasses at the time, trusted that the consent was consistent with previous medical deliberations he had had with his surgeon (1).

Apparently, the form stated that Houghton would be having the right testicle removed, instead of the left, and that the vasectomy would be performed on the left testicle (1). Before being surgically anesthetized, Houghton was asked to indicate which testicle he was having removed. Contrary to typical surgery procedures, traditional markings were not made on the surgical site (1). This "wrong site surgery" led to the removal of Houghton's healthy testicle (1). Houghton will have to undergo additional surgery so that the left testicle can be removed. Without the benefits of testosterone, he is likely to experience sexual dysfunction, depression, increased susceptibility to weight gain, and an elevated risk of developing osteoporosis (1).

Houghton and his wife have filed a claim and are hoping to gain monetary compensation for this grave medical error (1). They are also hoping that their case will help rectify inadequate medical procedures that have accounted for these irreversible mistakes (1). Changes have already been implemented at the medical center where Houghton had his surgery. Why were these precautions not in place before? What if you were Houghton? What if you were Houghton's wife? How do you think this incident would adversely affect your family and quality of life?

This unfortunate case certainly stresses the importance of reading everything before you sign. It also exposes patients' vulnerabilities when their health is entrusted to a medical team. Occasional medical mistakes are inevitable because we are human, but an error of this magnitude should never happen!

1. Engel, Mary. "VA Patient Has Wrong Testicle Removed" Los Angeles Times. 3 April 2007.

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