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Right Knee, Wrong Knee – Avoiding Medical Errors

When Medical Errors Hit Home


Front side of the left knee free of medical errors

English: Front side of the left knee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You need to listen to this little story about medical errors because it could very well save you – or a loved one – from unnecessary pain and exorbitant expense.

My roots on this journey to realizing that our healthcare sucks date back to the 1970’s when I was scheduled to undergo knee surgery for a pinched cartilage that had me on crutches. A pinched cartilage may not sound as serious as, say, a torn cartilage, but it caused a boatload of pain – enough that I couldn’t put any weight whatsoever on the injured knee.

The night before the surgery as I lay in my hospital bed, I recalled that a friend of mine had the wrong kidney removed at the same hospital – a very discomforting realization that these kinds of medical errors apply today to all of us more than we realize.

This was the 70’s – no internet, no cell phones, no social network to consult. So I decided to be bold and had my girlfriend write, in black magic marker, “WRONG KNEE” on my good knee so there’d be no mistaking it when I went under the knife. Before I lost consciousness, I recall the surgeon, who I knew and genuinely liked,  saying something to the effect of, “Oh, a wise guy, eh?” – not very reassuring as I was slipping into darkness.

But guess what? He didn’t operate on the “WRONG KNEE” – and I was nearly giddy in the recovery room. Actually, I WAS giddy – whatever they used to put me under left a very happy afterglow. My last recollection of that event was being wheeled out of the recovery room singing to my nurse as she faded from view that I’d just “grown accustomed to your face”…the most fun I’ve ever had in a hospital johnny.

Hospitals Are No Fun

Unfortunately, most hospitalizations aren’t such fun. This true story isn’t meant to make light of the very real risks you face whenever you’re hospitalized. Most medical errors cause far more harm than might have occurred to me had the wrong knee been operated on (although having two gimpy knees now would be no fun).

What it does illustrate is that we can all play a role in protecting ourselves from medical errors that occur routinely in our healthcare.

And the more doctors involved in your medical care, the more likely you’ll suffer a medical error, as this article from ABC News points out.

And you’re being very wise – not a “wise guy” – when you take steps to protect yourself from medical errors. Throwing a little humor into the mix, if you’re able, can help your doctors and nurses respond in kind and avoid misinterpreting where you’re coming from.

They know, after all, that medical errors hurt and even kill thousands of Americans every day, so they can hardly fault you for taking extra precautions. In fact, most will even encourage you to ask questions and “speak up” when you don’t understand what’s being done to you in your medical treatments.

Nowadays, the better hospitals and surgeons will use their own magic markers to identify which knee or other surgical site is the correct one – although it’s hard to believe that surgical checklists and other safety precautions still aren’t standard procedure in most hospitals (click here for more).

So don’t be afraid to speak up and help them do their jobs better – just don’t be a jerk about it.

After all, you may want their appreciation later if you decide to serenade them, too.

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