Surgery is safer when patients come with instructions

(Depending on when you read this, I may already be passed out at the hospital. Preferably in the actual operating room itself and not in the foyer near the registration desk. Today they are repairing a hernia that has kept me away from firefighting for the last month. To celebrate, and because I will be off the grid for most of the day, it seemed like the perfect time to re-run my very first Freshly Pressed post — which, as you can tell from the title, is especially appropriate. And in case you’re wondering: I promise not to come back looking like the old Rene Zellweger…)


image A recent study conducted by the healthcare industry shows an alarming trend in America’s operating rooms. According to the study, reports of “wrong-site surgery” are on the rise.

To clarify, “wrong-site surgery” occurs when a doctor operates on, say…

Your brain.

When he was supposed to operate on, say…

Your big toe.

Or someone else.

Or even someone else’s big toe.

That’s right; in a few cases, doctors have even operated on the wrong patient. However, the report strongly emphasizes that THIS IS VERY RARE, and only occurred when doctors didn’t have the right patient to begin with:

Let’s see, according to this chart, Mrs. Freemont is 68 years old and is here for a triple by-pass. Nurse, please shave away that thick hair on her chest, right below her Hell’s Angels tattoo.”

“Doctor, are you sure this is the right patient?”

“Absolutely, it says so right here on her chart.”

“But this patient looks like a man.”

“To the untrained eye, perhaps. But if you’ll lift up her hospital gown you’ll see…HOLY COW!”

“What is it, doctor?!”

“This is going to be more complicated than I thought…”

The organization that conducted the study, which was headed up by Dr. Dennis O’Leary, says there are a number of reasons “wrong-site surgery” has increased in recent years. According to Dr. O’Leary, “Doctors are busy, and people are being put to sleep before there is an opportunity to verify who they are, what procedure is going to be performed on them, and on what site.”

What this means, of course, is that you should always insist on staying awake long enough to meet your surgeon and, if at all possible, scrub in for the operation itself.

For situations when that isn’t possible — such as assisting with your own brain surgery, it’s a good idea to write out a list of instructions that you can keep with you at all times.

These instructions should include: Your name, the type of operation you’d like to have, and what part of your body you’d like it to happen on.

Here’s an example:

My name is Ned.
I’d like to have brain surgery, please.
If possible, I’d like it to happen on my head.
(Please see arrows)

You should know that the surgery which holds the greatest risk to patients is orthopedic surgery, which involves operating on the arms and legs, and therefore increases possible confusion between right and left:

“Okay, let’s open up that right arm… Wait a minute. Is it supposed to be MY right, or HIS right?”

“I’m not sure, doctor.”

“Let’s see… if I turn this way, that would make it my right and his left. Uh, right?”

“That’s true, doctor, but what if it’s your left.”

“You’re right! Let’s try flipping him over, and then we can… WAIT! He’s clutching some instructions…”

I should mention that out of the estimated 40 million operations performed in the U.S. last year, only 58 resulted in “wrong-site surgery.”

I should also mention that none of them were fatal, and that all of them happened to Kenny Rogers.

As you might’ve guessed, the results from this study have prompted hospitals to find ways to reduce the numbers of “wrong-site” incidents that occur each year. While I’ve had a chance to read over some of the suggestions, I’m going to refrain from including any of them here — just to avoid stepping on any toes.

Especially if they happen to be my doctor’s.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, will be released this December from Port Hole Publications. You can write to him at, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

66 thoughts on “Surgery is safer when patients come with instructions”

  1. I think I remember this one from your book. Loved it. Especially the line: “and, if at all possible, scrub in for the operation itself”—Now THAT would make for an interesting surgery.

    I hope all goes well, and I wish you a swift recovery!

    1. Yep, I included this one in the book. Hopefully my doctor didn’t read it…

      And thanks, Carrie. I’m sure things will be fine. My doctor is pretty awesome. (I hope he reads this, though…)

            1. Lol! I got home Thursday afternoon. Had to stay over one night because of a minor complication but all is well. I’ve been holding the couch down the last two days, so getting up to make a fire this morning was a nice return to normalcy. But you should consider the source… 😉

              1. Awesome! So glad to know that you’re back home.
                It’s quite serendipitous that you were building a fire this morning. Hubby and I chopped wood all afternoon…we have two trailers full if you run out of tinder 🙂
                *wanders off to ice knee

  2. I try to stop and different blogs when I use social media, “We blog”. The few time I been on an operating table I came though with flying colors. Although they were minor things and it was in small town hospitals.
    If you find the time stop on by my blog….Coffee is on

  3. I had knee surgery a few years ago and the nurse repeatedly asked me to confirm which leg the surgery was to take place and then marked on the leg like multiple times. At first I thought it was over kill, but looking back I am just grateful! Nothing like two knee surgeries when there should’ve been one!

    1. He did really well. Apparently I aspirated at some point and they had to put a breathing tube down my throat. That would explain the dream I had about choking on a bratwurst.

  4. I hope your hernia repair goes better than my hernia repair (which, three years later, still needs to be re-repaired). From personal experience, don’t cough, lift, laugh, sit, drive, poop, stoop, stand, walk, or think for six to eight weeks.

  5. I hope by now you are out of surgery and even out of recovery and home since most hernia repairs are out patient.
    Anyhoo…. I hope all went well and you are on a speedy road to resume your firefighting duty! Thank you btw! I know we do not live in the same town so you aren’t MY firefighter. But I appreciate what you do and all those who put their life at risk every day for the safety of life and “stuff”. Get well soon! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Courtney 😉 I got back home Thursday afternoon and am on the fast lane to recovery after a couple of days holding the couch down. I’ll be back to work Monday and back to firefighting on the 24th — just in time to help put out all those flaming turkeys for Thanksgiving 😉

  6. Hilarious (and scary!) post. My last abdominal surgery they must have asked me what surgery I was having done once about every five seconds. Finally after an hour of this I said, “Okay okay! If I tell you I’m here for a tummy tuck and boob job, will you leave me the hell alone?”

  7. Oh, another empathy growing session, eh? Well, I know you’ll excel at the whole surgery thing, even while under. Looking forward to hearing about the recovery. Now, I’d better head over to the Hook’s site. I think he may have need for some uplifting. 😉

  8. being heavily medicated and having people ask you if you are passing gas every 20 minutes and waking you up to take your temperature every hour is an awesome way to remind yourself how much you love home when no one cares about your flatulence unless they are in your direct line of scent.
    speedy recovery, take it easy, and may the only future pulling in the groin area be of a completely different nature.

    1. I didn’t realize I was supposed to be farting more than I do until I was in the hospital. Now, I don’t hide my farts. I just holler “Doctor’s Orders!” and let them fly.

      And thanks, RM 😉

  9. Dear Ned – – I certainly hope they fix your hernia.
    When they roll you over, they need to turn ya
    And your note should state, “To Whom It May Concernia”
    I hope the stitches won’t itch or burnia.
    And that in a few years, the hernia won’t returnia.
    Reading this, I guess it’s easy to discernia . . .
    that when writing humor, I have a lot to learnia.

    That’s why I hang out here!

    ps. As far as “Wrong Site” goes. I hear readers utter that under their breath every time they accidentally land on my blog.

    Get well quick. (That was controlling.) Heal at your own pace!


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