Health News Horrors

Here's a roundup of the health news that made us stop, spit out our coffee, and read twice.

Illustration by David PohlAll these stories are true. Frightening, but true.

Horror Headline: Operation Mix-Ups on the Rise?
Never events: That’s how medical professionals describe what happened in April 2011, in an Oregon hospital during an eye surgery for three-year-old Jesse Matlock. He went in for a procedure to correct his lazy right eye, but the doctor operated on his left eye first, realized her mistake, and immediately repeated the same procedure on the right. A few weeks post-op, Jessie’s mom reported that the toddler’s left eye was wandering, and the right didn’t seem fixed.

This is the kind of mistake that simply should never happen. But wrong-procedure, wrong-patient, and wrong-site surgeries still occur about 40 times a week, according to recent estimates by a group that accredits U.S. hospitals. In 2004, this same group established a universal protocol to help prevent these errors, requiring pre-op verification, a mark of the surgical site, and a time-out to confirm everything before surgery starts. Yet some experts say the problem of wrong-site surgeries has not improved and may even be getting worse—in part because physicians aren’t following the guidelines.

Horror Headline: Dirty Tools More Common Than You Think

John Harrison checked into Houston’s Methodist Hospital in 2009 for a routine rotator cuff repair. Soon after, the area around the 63-year-old’s scar became bright red and painful. An infection had eaten away part of the bone and loosened screws that surgeons had just placed. Within a short period, at least six other patients at Methodist developed similar infections. The hospital ultimately found an alarming culprit: Human tissue and bone were inside supposedly sterile surgical instruments; bacteria from that leftover matter likely caused the infections. There were other reports in 2009 that more than 10,000 veterans in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia had procedures with improperly cleaned endoscopes; some of them later tested positive for HIV.

Bad design of equipment and inadequate testing by manufacturers are partly to blame. A researcher from the University of Michigan checked 350 suction tips with a video camera and found that almost all of them had some kind of debris, even after they had been cleaned according to the manufacturers’ instructions. And sterilization workers may not be properly trained. New Jersey is the only state that currently requires technicians to be certified (New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are considering legislation requiring certification).

Illustration by David PohlHorror Headline: Phony Drug Trial Misleads Cancer Patients

“It was a false, counterfeit clinical trial exploiting human beings.” Walter Jacobs didn’t mince words when he spoke to CBS’s 60 Minutes about the Duke University trial that his wife, Juliet, joined in 2010. She had stage IV lung cancer, and this was her last shot at treatment. Researchers at Duke University said they had discovered how to match the best chemotherapy to a patient’s genetic makeup, reported 60 Minutes. The advanced experimental treatment promised to be the holy grail in cancer care, offering patients a better chance of survival, even at advanced stages.

But when other scientists set out to verify the research that led to the clinical trial, they found many errors. They even suspected that lead researcher Anil Potti, MD, a rising star in the cancer research community, had somehow reversed the data and that some patients could be getting the worst drug for their tumor. After it was discovered that Dr. Potti had falsely claimed he was a Rhodes scholar, authorities stopped the trials.

“It became clear that there was no explanation other than there was a manipulation—a manipulation of the data and a manipulation of a lot of people’s trust,” Joseph Nevins, PhD, a genomics professor and scientist who worked with Dr. Potti at Duke, told 60 Minutes. Medical journals began retracting Dr. Potti’s papers, and two lawsuits were filed last year. Of seven patients named as plaintiffs, only two are alive today. Juliet Jacobs died three months after she joined the trial.

Duke has apologized for the trial (although it says no patients were harmed because all received the standard of care in chemotherapy). Potti, who said he didn’t know improper information had been included in the research, resigned from Duke and faces an investigation into research misconduct.

Horror Headline: Heart Attack Mistaken for Publicity Stunt

Heart attack at the Heart Attack Grill: At a Las Vegas eatery where diners don hospital gowns and the menu offers “bypass” burgers and “flatliner” fries, it’s no wonder people thought a patron having a heart attack while eating at the Heart Attack Grill earlier this year was a stunt. It wasn’t.

Owner Jon Basso told CBS News that many restaurants serve unhealthful food; he’s just honest about it. And could eating one “triple-bypass burger” really cause a heart attack? “Maybe,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “Because of acute effects on blood flow, one very unhealthful meal can precipitate a heart attack in someone with coronary disease.” In this case, the patient survived, but so did the restaurant’s tongue-in-cheek marketing. “It’s supposed to be ‘funny’ that they serve ‘heart attack food,’ but when you or someone you love has a heart attack, I’m pretty sure it’s not funny—at all,” says Dr. Katz.

In related news, as part of a promotion earlier this year, the Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino in Hallandale Beach, Florida, awarded gamers 10 cents of free slot machine play for each pound they weighed. And if visitors wanted to fatten up before weighing in and earn more cash, they could help themselves to free Krispy Kreme doughnuts provided by the casino, reported the Sun Sentinel. The number of treats you’d have to eat to earn just $1 of playtime: 180.

Illustration by David PohlHorror Headline: Kids Go Under the Knife For Cosmetic Surgery

Plastic surgeon gave daughter breast implants: You read that right. California-based plastic surgeon Michael Niccole performed a breast augmentation on his daughter Brittani, now 23, when she turned 18—a gift for her birthday. (He also did her nose job a few years later.) His other daughter, Charm, went under her father’s knife at age ten to change her outie belly button (that she hated) to an innie. Today, the girls, who are both adopted, get regular Botox injections, among other procedures.

Grown-ups are no strangers to crazy cosmetic procedures, of course. Some men unhappy with their stature are going to great lengths to stand taller, opting for a leg-lengthening procedure that’s sometimes used in children whose legs are at unequal lengths, according to ABC’s 20/20. How it’s done: Surgeons break the leg bone in two and implant a telescopic rod, which then pulls the bones apart at a rate of about one millimeter a day. New bone then regenerates around the rod. The procedure is expensive (one Florida surgeon charges about $85,000), and the recovery involves months of demanding and painful physical therapy.

Horror Headline: Supply of Lifesaving Drugs Dwindling

Cancer drugs, anesthetics, and even crash cart meds are just a few on the ever-growing list of drugs in short supply across hospitals nationwide. The number of drug shortages has tripled since 2005, hitting a record high last year. Manufacturing problems, quality issues, and low profits all contribute to the shortages, which can be life-threatening. Rebecca Robinson, 37, was being treated with the chemotherapy drug Doxil for angiosarcoma, a rare blood vessel cancer that spreads to other organs, reported Time. Doxil stalled her cancer with minimal side effects—until July 2011, when her hospital ran out of it. Doctors switched her to another kind of chemo, but her cancer continued to spread; they’ve since tried two more drugs, both of which have triggered nasty side effects and, so far, have not arrested the spread of her cancer.

Illustration by David PohlHorror Headline: Old Folks Send Message With Emergency Tattoos

Bet you’ll never guess what 81-year-old Joy Tomkins of Norfolk, England, has tattooed over her heart in big blue capital letters: “DO NOT RESUSCITATE.” Kansas City pathologist Ed Friedlander, MD, has “No CPR” front and center on his chest. Melissa Boyer of Nashville, Michigan, got a tattoo that declares her a type 1 diabetic with allergies to penicillin and aspirin.

But here’s the rub: The markings don’t carry much medical weight. “Unless there’s strong supporting information, such as a legal document stating otherwise, we would begin lifesaving treatment, regardless of a tattoo,” says David Ross, DO, an emergency physician with the Penrose–St. Francis health system in Colo­rado and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. Though emergency responders may take into account tattoo alerts of allergies or diseases, they wouldn’t serve as complete medical background.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest