Some people in New Mexico might have heard of cases in which surgeons left instruments behind in people following an operation. This rare occurrence still happens thousands of times a year in the United States, most commonly with needles and sponges. There may be no health consequences, or such an error could lead to illness or death.

Sponges are particularly easy to leave behind because many of them may be used during surgery, and they can be confused with tissue and organs. This might be more likely in an emergency or if the surgical staff is fatigued. It may also happen when there is a change in the surgical team, or there is more than one procedure. In response to this problem, some hospitals have begun using a bar codes to track surgical sponges. Towels and sponges tagged with radio frequency can also be detected with X-rays before leaving the operating room. Other objects that have been left behind in people during surgery include tubes, towels, surgical gloves, forceps and scalpels.

People can go for months or years without knowing they have surgical instruments in their bodies. Consequences may include digestive problems, damaged internal organs, fever, infection, pain and swelling. Patients might have to undergo surgery a second time.

People who have had a surgical instrument left behind or suffered from another type of medical malpractice, such as a missed diagnosis, might want to consult a lawyer. From a legal standpoint, two elements must be in place for a case to be considered medical malpractice. Some harm must have occurred, and it must be the result of negligence. Negligence means the patient did not receive a reasonable standard of care, and this is determined by considering whether the person would have received a similar level of care from most medical practitioners.