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Top 10 Times People Died During Minor Surgery

by John Munoz
fact checked by Jamie Frater

When you go through minor surgery, there’s nothing major about it. Well, there is—surgery is surgery. But it should be routine, with minimal cuts, maybe a few stitches, and little to no organ rearranging. Most important, you should be able to walk out that outpatient door and recover at home. But sometimes, the best-laid surgery plans don’t go as expected. 

Whether it’s from medical malpractice, freak allergic reactions, or underlying conditions occasionally, people die during the most routine and minor procedures. Death is always a risk with surgery. Still, when it happens in these cases, it’s especially surprising. Here are the top 10 times people died during minor surgery.

10 Lidocaine Toxicity

lidocaine injection is safe near a vein? answer to fan question

The chance of dying from a local anesthetic is extremely rare, with less than a 1 in 100,000 chance. The local anesthetic in this story is lidocaine. Medical professionals use lidocaine for a variety of procedures, from trigger point injections to dental reconstructions. It is generally safe, but for a select unlucky few, it can be deadly. Chances of death increase if the doctor administering the local anesthetic makes a mistake.

This was the case for a five-year-old girl in 2011. Kensley Kirby’s parents took her to Family Medical Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia, after falling and suffering a broken arm. The doctor administered a lidocaine numbing shot while setting her arm, but she did not react well to it. The dosage was fatal. With a broken bone, her body absorbed the nerve blocker quickly. Investigators speculated that the doctor who administered the shot was used to working on adults, not young children. That’s still no excuse for someone who knows better than not to adjust the dosage for a little girl.

9 Therapeutic Complications

Joan Rivers’ Autopsy Reveals Cause Of Death | TODAY

On September 4, 2014, comedian and fashion critic Joan Rivers died from therapeutic complications of a routine endoscopy. Therapeutic complications are predictable outcomes of therapy or procedure. 

While under anesthesia, her vocal cords went into spasm, which blocked oxygen from her brain. Because her throat swelled, doctors couldn’t insert a breathing tube in time, resulting in brain damage and respiratory failure. Her heart went into arrhythmia—irregular heartbeat—and eventually stopped beating. Although it’s a terribly tragic way to go, heart and respiratory failure—and ultimately brain damage—are rare side effects of anesthesia. 

The flip side to Joan’s death is that it may not have been entirely the fault of her spasming vocal cords. The doctors conducting the procedure were investigated for malpractice. Besides taking a selfie with Joan (while she was under anesthesia), they had also performed a laryngoscopy, something Joan had not agreed to. The timeline of events also shows that doctors could have avoided Joan’s death had they realized her blood pressure and pulse were dropping earlier on.

8 Andy’s Gallbladder

Andy Warhol – Death Report – British News 1987

Pop art pioneer and cultural icon Andy Warhol led a fantastical Manhattan lifestyle, even making a few enemies along the way. In 1968, radical author and artist Valerie Solanas marched to Warhol’s office and shot him twice. The bullets wrecked his organs, including his lungs, and it wasn’t clear whether or not he would survive. He even died at the hospital while they were working on repairs. But survive he did! You would think surviving a gunshot wound like that would get you the pass in any other life-threatening situations—but that wasn’t the case.

What used to be labeled a “routine” gallbladder surgery by the media is what ultimately killed Warhol. It was not routine, at least, not in Warhol’s case. The stress of the recovery, his sustained injuries from the gunshot wounds, a healthy dose of speed every day, and a prolonged sickness were just way too much for his heart. Though he made it through the surgery, he didn’t make it out of the hospital.

7 Danger at the Dentist’s Office

Children At Risk: Kids And Sedation At The Dentist’s Office | NBC News

Nitrous oxide is a safe alternative to pain and anti-anxiety medication during outpatient surgeries. However, if used incorrectly, it could prove to be fatal. In another case of a medical professional not knowing when enough is enough, a young child died due to lack of oxygen during a dental procedure. The boy reportedly had behavioral issues and the surgery to remove four decaying teeth would be painful. When he wasn’t responding to the nitrous oxide, the doctor increased the amount of sedative he used. 

6 Lack of Wisdom

Dentist’s License Suspended Over Fatal Wisdom Tooth Surgery

That isn’t the only incident of a young person suffering the worst complications anesthesia can cause. A 17-year-old girl suffered a heart attack during a routine wisdom teeth extraction surgery. Though the doctor eventually revived her and got her to a hospital, she was declared brain dead a week after the surgery. The family sued for malpractice, arguing that there should have been better monitoring and emergency response. There was also evidence that an uncertified dental assistant was partially to blame for the oversight. The family received a $2 million settlement, but no money is enough to make up for the loss of their daughter.

5 Mommy Makeover

California Mom Dead, 2 Others Injured After Plastic Surgery In Mexico

A 38-year-old mother of two was on vacation with her family in Tijuana. While there, she decided to travel to Mexico with two other friends and treat herself to a “mommy makeover.” The tummy tuck ended up a fatal decision. Sadly, she experienced blood clotting during the procedure and suffered a heart attack. Even after 45 minutes of CPR, the medical team could not revive her. The two other women developed terrible complications. 

Most plastic surgery these days is considered outpatient, or ambulatory, surgery. Meaning a patient can arrive in the morning and be recovered enough to leave (with assistance, of course) the same day. Still, it is expensive. The cost of these procedures has increased medical tourism. In medical tourism, people seek out “certified” plastic surgeons in other countries. These surgeons usually charge a fraction of the price they would pay in the US and promise the same results. The issue is that you risk quality, hygiene, and your life with potentially deceptive ads and medical malpractice.

It seems it’s best to invest in a certified doctor or not get plastic surgery at all.

4 Bleach in the Line

Episode 17 – Kimberly Saenz

Not all deaths during medical procedures are accidental. Back in 2012, a Texas nurse, Kimberly Clark Saenz, was arrested and sentenced to the death penalty for murdering dialysis patients during their treatments. People who suffer from chronic kidney disease rely on dialysis to filter and clean their blood, as their kidneys cannot. That said, dialysis patients put a lot of trust into the facility they go to for treatment and one misstep by dialysis technicians could mean some serious health consequences. 

Saenz did not care.

In 2008, about a year after Saenz started working at the dialysis center, administrators noticed that more and more patients were falling ill and suffering from cardiac arrest during treatments. In an effort to reduce these numbers, the facility made some staff changes and rearranged nurses. Saenz was reassigned as a patient care technician. Later that day, two patients saw her inject a bleach solution into the IV lines and reported her. She was ultimately fired and an investigation was opened to look into her contact with patients.

Of the five patients who had died that year, all had come into direct contact with Saenz. She was in-saenz.

3 da Vinci Robot

da Vinci® Surgery – How It Works

The medical profession has advanced by leaps and bounds in its practices and surgical equipment. What was once considered major, “open you up” surgery, doctors can now do through smaller incisions. They can perform cardiac oblations by threading tools up the femoral artery; they can remove your gallbladder with two small incisions. In gynecology, new technology even helps surgeons perform hysterectomies (the removal of the uterus) similarly. Oh, and you can get a robot to help you out, too. 

The da Vinci is that robot! The positives: it’s a minimally invasive surgical tool and patients may end up experiencing fewer complications from their surgery. The negatives: it’s still fairly new technology, and doctors only receive one day’s worth of formal training with it. Unfortunately, one little slip of the robot and technological celebration could turn into a technological tragedy.

In 2012, the da Vinci made a major slip up. As a result, a woman died during her robot-assisted hysterectomy. The robot’s arm nicked a blood vessel. This isn’t the only incident involving one of these machines, but it is certainly the most tragic.

2 Fat Cells

Sister Of Woman Who Died After Brazilian Butt Lift Talks About Family’s Loss | NBC 6

This plastic surgery death differs from the others on this list because the patient didn’t look for a cheap alternative. Traveling to Miami, Florida, from New York, the 46-year-old transgender woman found a clinic specializing in Brazillian butt lifts. She was scheduled to have a completely routine Brazilian butt-lift surgery. Nothing more. 

The catch is that as routine as the surgery is, they pose a greater risk than other plastic surgeries. When a surgeon injects fat below the gluteal muscles—your butt muscles—the needle can accidentally penetrate the gluteal vein. This caused the fat to enter the bloodstream, leading to major complications and heart and lung failure. Over the past decade, at least 20 people in Miami alone have died from the surgery. 

Unfortunately, in this case, that’s what happened to the beloved New Yorker. Her oxygen and heart rate dropped while on the table, the doctor couldn’t resuscitate her, and she was declared dead at the hospital. Her death was ruled accidental.

1 A Repeat Offender

People may not see labor as surgery because it is so routine, procedural, and oftentimes rewarding. But there are certainly obvious surgical aspects to the process, especially when it comes to C-sections, which is a surgery. 

Every labor is slightly different, of course, but there is protocol for almost every situation. Yet this guy, this guy right here—Dr. (or soon-to-be-former Dr.) Dmitry Shelchkov—decided not to follow protocol. Imagine being the reason why a child grows up without their mother. That’s Shelchkov.

Back in 2020, Shelchkov was directly responsible for the death of a 26-year-old mother from Brooklyn Sha-Asia Washington. During her C-section, he failed to give her oxygen after experiencing breathing difficulties. After he had given her an epidural, he administered additional medication. Want to guess what it was? Fentanyl. It was fentanyl. This was when Shelchkov didn’t give her enough oxygen. 

She became unresponsive, without a pulse, two minutes later. She continued to suffer a string of cardiac arrests until she passed away later that night.

Shelchkov has been tied to eight other malpractice incidents, including not giving anesthesia to another C-section patient. His medical license is currently suspended.

fact checked by Jamie Frater