Show Mobile Navigation
Health |

10 Nightmarish Stories About Terrifying Medical Errors

by Gordon Gora
fact checked by Jamie Frater

When we go to doctors, we usually trust them to do their best to try to help us. However, doctors are humans, too, and that means they make mistakes. Some doctors do their best not make mistakes; others, not so much. As the health care system grows ever more complex and complicated, mistakes are bound to happen. Sometimes, these mistakes can cause lifelong problems. Other times, they’re lethal.

10 Alyssa Hemmelgarn Died From A Hospital Infection

Alyssa’s Story: Including Patients and Families in Delivery of Care

In 2007, nine-year-old Alyssa Hemmelgarn became sick and didn’t seem to be getting any better. She had swollen glands and cold sores that wouldn’t disappear. Because of the malaise that Alyssa displayed, her mother, Carole, suspected that she may have had mono. However, when she took her daughter to the doctor, she received some devastating news. Alyssa was admitted to a Denver hospital, where she was diagnosed with leukemia.

That alone was tragic enough, but it wasn’t the end for Carole or Alyssa. After a week of treatment, Alyssa seemed to be doing better. She and her mother managed to walk around the hospital and watch a movie, but as the evening arrived, Alyssa began to feel worse. Soon after, she began to experience dire symptoms. Despite their best efforts, doctors couldn’t help Alyssa, and she soon died.

Alyssa wasn’t killed by leukemia. The actual cause was Clostridium difficile, a hospital-acquired infection that had grown more severe with each day. No one managed to find the infection before Alyssa died. It turned out that a doctor had noted Alyssa as “anxious,” so she was given Ativan, which could have covered up her symptoms. Another reason that nothing was done was the prohibitive cost to treat severe infections like C. diff. Antibiotics pumped directly into a large vein via IV costs $50,000, which makes many doctors leery to use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Alyssa did not die in vain, though. Since her death, there have been numerous reforms in treatment throughout hospitals in Colorado.

9 Richard Smith Died From Receiving A Paralytic

Richard Smith, 79 years old, had kidney disease, which required him to receive dialysis. In 2010, Smith was undergoing dialysis when he started to experience shortness of breath. He was admitted to the ICU. The next day, he complained of a stomachache. He was prescribed an antacid, which he received from his nurse afterward. Only . . . it wasn’t an antacid.

Smith was given pancuronium, a paralytic and muscle relaxant that is used for intubation in small doses and for lethal injection in larger ones. After Smith was given the drug, he became unresponsive. The drug had put him into respiratory arrest. Apparently, the packaging for the antacid and for the paralytic looked similar, which was the cause of the mix-up. While doctors did manage to resuscitate Smith, he was brain-dead and remained in a vegetative state until his death one month later.

According to Andrew Yaffa, the Smith family lawyer, the case was “the worst case of medical neglect” he had ever seen. To have given Smith the wrong drug, the nurse would have had to fail to follow numerous protocols: She “failed to look and read what medication he was taking [ . . . ] failed to scan to determine the right count for the medication, and failed to match the patient’s ID with the scanned medication.” To add insult to injury, the hospital appeared to show no remorse, even allowing the nurse to remain on the same floor that Smith had died on. They did, however, remove pancuronium from all nurses’ stations in the hospital and only allow anesthesiologists to have access to the drug.

8 Regina Turner Had The Wrong Surgery

Regina Turner endured many people’s worst nightmare concerning surgery—receiving the wrong operation. Her ordeal was already frightening enough: She had been admitted to the hospital for a “left-sided craniotomy bypass,” which was supposed to prevent Turner from having continued strokes, as she’d previously had a series of mini-strokes, which affected her ability to talk. After having the wrong surgery, her health deteriorated.

Before she went into surgery, Turner was still in relatively good shape. She was “mobile, cognizant, and able to care for herself.” According to the lawsuit filed against hospital, Turner’s condition worsened: “After the incorrect surgery, [Turner] requires around-the-clock care for her basic needs. [ . . . ] [She] will also continue to suffer from emotional distress, anxiety, disfigurement and depression.”

Rather than a left-side bypass, she had been given a right-side bypass, which caused considerable damage to her nervous system. Once the mistake was caught, the correct procedure was done, but Turner remained in poor health. The failure of anyone to catch the doctors’ mistake meant that numerous protocols were overlooked. Generally, before an operation, doctors and nurses will have a “time-out,” where they discuss in depth the details of the surgery and go over exactly what needs to be done. The surgeon also has to mark exactly where the surgery is to be performed. Apparently, this wasn’t enough to keep them from operating on the wrong side.

7 Pablo Garcia Received A Massive Overdose

Too Many Pills
We can generally agree that technology has vastly improved our lives, but it can still make mistakes, as can the people using it. This was the case when a 16-year-old boy named Pablo Garcia was admitted to the hospital for a colonoscopy to examine intestinal polyps. What should have been a completely routine procedure nearly became a lethal tragedy.

Garcia had a rare genetic disorder called NEMO deficiency syndrome, which causes recurrent infections and gastrointestinal issues. Because he was so susceptible to infection, Garcia required frequent antibiotic treatments. While in the hospital, Garcia had been prescribed the drug Septra for his infections. It’s fairly easy to determine how much of the drug to give to someone. It’s all dependent on conversions based on weight and age, which can be easily calculated with computers using a program called Epic EHR.

The program had been set to “milligrams,” which means that it would calculate how many milligrams of a drug should be given based on how many kilograms the patient weighed. However, the nurse treating Garcia reset the program and didn’t catch that it had now been set to “milligrams per kilogram.” When she typed in his dose, 160 milligrams of Septra, it multiplied it by Garcia’s weight. The dose equaled 38.5 pills, the largest dose ever recorded. Rather than question the machine, the nurse doled out the pills. Soon after, Garcia had a grand mal seizure, nearly dying. Luckily, he managed to survive. The case of Pablo Garcia illustrates quite clearly how dangerous it is to depend too much on technology.

6 Andy Warhol Received Too Many Fluids

Andy Warhol

Photo via Wikimedia

In 1987, Andy Warhol required gallbladder surgery. Despite having a phobia of hospitals and doctors in general, he agreed to the surgery, which seemed to be successful. As usual for someone in a hospital, Warhol received fluids to remain hydrated. Unfortunately, he slipped into a coma and soon died.

Why had Warhol died after a routine procedure? An inquiry found that at the time of his death, Warhol was anemic. He had been before he was admitted, but doctors said he was in good enough condition for surgery. Afterward, though, it was discovered that Warhol had been receiving twice the amount of fluids he needed, which caused his body to drain itself of minerals, leading to his death. He had been unattended, and internal pressure built up, causing heart failure. According to Warhol’s private physician, Dr. Denton S. Cox, the 58-year-old artist hadn’t been looked over by any physicians, and the nurses rarely, if ever, checked up on him. He was being pumped full of morphine, which along with loss of nutrients due to excess fluids, caused his body to fill up.

During his autopsy, it was discovered that Warhol’s lungs and trachea had completely filled with fluid. The condition that Warhol died from could have been easily treated if someone on the staff would have simply paid attention.

5 Robert Stuart And Darren Hughes Died From Worm-Infested Kidneys

Surgery gone wrong: Worm-riddled kidneys from homeless man given to 2 patients, killing them both

In 2014, an unknown alcoholic died in Northern England from what was believed to be meningitis. He was only 39, but he was a heavy drinker. After his death, his organs were rightfully rejected for donation because of their poor functioning, and the cause of death could have caused complications for any recipients. While they should have been destroyed, they were instead given to two unfortunate patients.

Robert Stuart and Darren Hughes both needed kidney transplants, so when two arrived, it must have seemed like a godsend. Argiris Asderakis, the consultant surgeon who accepted the kidneys, claimed that the patients knew there was significant risk because the donor had died from meningitis. Both patients accepted them and died from meningitis soon after. It became clear that the kidneys were infected with a rare parasitic worm called Halicephalobus gingivalis, which is primarily found in horses. At the time, there was no test that could determine whether or not the kidneys were infected with the parasite.

While the surgeon claimed no responsibility, the patients’ families said that they had not been given all of the information involving the risks associated with organ transplants. Even if the worms had not been present in the kidneys, the fact that they had been infected with meningitis would have posed significant risk that the patients would die while on dialysis. Since there had been no reported cases of the parasite in the UK, there was no reason to look for it. It still remains rare today, with only five reported cases in the world, but it’s worth the effort to check for it if you are ever in need of a new organ.

4 Rodney English Received A Bad Blood Transfusion

Rodney English Bad Blood Transfusion

Rodney English, age 34, had been in and out of the hospital for most of his life due to spina bifida, a congenital disorder. When he was in the hospital receiving an operation for an infection, it wasn’t surprising that he needed a blood transfusion. After the procedure, he seemed to be recovering very well. However, his girlfriend quickly noticed that something was wrong. He couldn’t stay awake, and one day, he fell asleep and never woke up.

It wasn’t his condition or the procedure that killed him but rather a mislabeled blood transfusion. This is not a common phenomenon in any way. There are multiple layers of safety checks from the moment the blood leaves the blood bank to when it’s finally given to the patient. However, despite these protocols, they failed to catch the fact that English was receiving the wrong blood type. In a further act of incompetence, English’s family wasn’t informed of the mistake. They were told that English died from “anemia,” which was also listed as the cause of death.

It wasn’t until a CBS investigation that English’s family learned the truth. Another shocking revelation came when they learned that the blood came from a Red Cross facility in Atlanta that had 25 violations noted by the FDA in 1999 and had been fined for further allegations around the time that English died. When asked why Piedmont Hospital did not tell the family the true cause of death, they responded by saying that they never revealed anything about a patient’s death until there was “full information to share.”

3 Barry Morguloff Was Operated On By A Substance-Abusing Surgeon

‘He’s a Monster’: Victims Blast Neurosurgeon Arrested For Allegedly Injuring The

When you’re on the operating room table, your life is quite literally in the surgeon’s hands. Knowing this, you would naturally hope that the surgeon operating on you would be of sound mind and body and competent enough to do his job. Barry Morguloff’s surgeon, on the other hand, was a man who committed numerous violations and should have never been allowed to practice medicine.

Morguloff first went to the hospital complaining of back pain. He was given steroid injections, but they didn’t help. He was then referred to Dr. Christopher Duntsch for spinal fusion, a delicate surgery that worked directly with the nerves in the spinal cord. When Morguloff emerged from surgery, the pain was still there; in fact, it had grown worse. He was given painkillers, but after six months, he was still in pain. When another doctor examined Morguloff, he discovered that bone fragments had been left on the nerves, and the hardware in his spine was installed incorrectly. It took another surgery to fix it.

How could such glaring mistakes have been committed by a supposedly accredited surgeon? Dr. Randall Kirby, a surgeon who assisted Duntsch, claimed that he had a surgical technique like a first-year medical student and had little to no knowledge of the spinal system. Other patients of Duntsch also complained that they only grew worse after seeing him.

Not only was Duntsch completely incompetent, but it also became clear that he was using drugs while working. A bottle of vodka was in his desk, he was using painkillers, and a bag of white powder was found in his private bathroom. He left one patient in the operating room so he could go to Las Vegas. He skipped five drug tests during his time at the hospital. The reason he was allowed to operate was the fact that the hospital had advanced him $600,000 to move from Tennessee to Dallas, and they wanted to recoup their investment no matter the consequences.

2 Riley McDougall Was Given Ambien Instead Of Antibiotics

When an adult starts to suffer from insomnia for whatever reason, they might go to their doctor for help, and they might be prescribed Ambien, an effective and popular sleep aid. In adults, Ambien can ease insomnia; in a child, it can have terrifying mental effects. It is for this reason that children are rarely, if ever, prescribed the drug. Now imagine how bad it was when a 12-year-old girl was given the drug by accident.

Riley McDougall was prescribed antibiotics, but when she started taking her pills, she became dazed and experienced frightening hallucinations. She tried to remove stair railings, thinking they were curtains, and saw other frightening manifestations. The episode was caught on camera by her mother, Coleen. Riley was taken to the emergency room, where she was told that she’d had a bad reaction to Sudafed, which she was taking for a cold. She was released and went back home. Coleen didn’t give Riley the Sudafed this time but continued to give her the “antibiotics.” Riley started experiencing double vision 20 minutes later. Coleen called the pharmacy and described the pills to the pharmacist along with their effects.

What the pharmacist told her explained it all: The pills were not azithromycin, the antibiotic Riley needed, but Ambien. The Ambien pills were white and hardly resembled azithromycin pills, which are pink. Coleen filed a lawsuit against the local CVS and said that her daughter’s reaction should serve as a warning to everyone. About prescriptions, she said: “Make sure you really read your prescriptions, and make sure it’s the right thing.”

1 Jack Startz Hooked Patients On Drugs And Destroyed Their Faces

Behind The Candelabra (2013) Official Trailer

To many, celebrities undergoing frequent cosmetic surgeries to keep looking “fresh” is nothing more than a joke. After all, if they have that much money to throw around needlessly, then why should we care? In the case of Beverly Hills surgeon Jack Startz, celebrity plastic surgery took a dark turn. Recently, his horrifying practice has come back to light due to the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, where he is portrayed as an eccentric surgeon who will do anything for his client, Liberace. In reality, though, he was an unethical monster.

In 1979, Liberace, the world-renowned showman, watched himself on The Tonight Show and was horrified by what he saw. He felt that he looked old and decided to get a face-lift. He went to ear, nose, and throat specialist Jack Startz, who agreed to perform the procedure. The result—Liberace’s face was so tight that he couldn’t fully shut his eyelids, even when he was sleeping. Despite this, Liberace wanted his partner, Scott Thorson, to receive plastic surgery to resemble a younger version of himself. Startz agreed to do this, too. In the process, Startz put Thorson on a “Hollywood diet,” which was little more than a highly addictive cocktail made of drugs like pharmaceutical cocaine, quaaludes, and amphetamines, which left Thorson dependent on them.

The reason Startz agreed to do these questionable procedures was the fact that he was experiencing financial problems related to his own alcoholism and drug use. He soon found a gold mine in silicone injections. He performed them constantly without any regard for his patients because he needed the money. The results were scary: Elaine Young, a celebrity realtor, was a high-profile victim of his practice. Starting in 1977, Young received monthly silicone injections from Startz. At first, the results seemed to defy reality, so much so that Young recommended Dr. Startz to all her friends and clients.

Within three years, though, something started to go wrong. The silicone in her face began to shift and move, severely deforming it. She tried to contact Dr. Startz, but he didn’t return her calls. She learned that over 100 lawsuits had been filed against him. From 1965 to 1979, Startz had injected 2,000 people with silicone, many of whom were experiencing the same effects as Young. Facing mounting legal issues, possible jail time, and severe substance abuse, Startz put a gun in his mouth and shot himself in 1985.

Gordon Gora is a struggling author who is desperately trying to make it. He is working on several projects, but until he finishes one, he will write for Listverse for his bread and butter. You can write him at [email protected].

fact checked by Jamie Frater