Medicolegal Issues

Malpractice Counsel: Retained foreign body, ruptured esophagus

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Retained Foreign Body

A 15-year-old male adolescent was brought to the ED by his father for evaluation of lacerations on the teenager’s left forearm, which were caused by a shattered glass door. The accident happened approximately 45 minutes prior to the patient’s arrival at the ED. The patient was up to date on all of his immunizations, including tetanus, and had no significant medical history.

On physical examination, the patient’s vital signs were all normal. He was noted to have two lacerations on the volar aspect of the distal one-third of his left forearm. One laceration measured 2.5 cm, running diagonally on the forearm; the other laceration was approximately 2 cm, running horizontally on the forearm. The bleeding from both wound sites was easily controlled with pressure.

The emergency physician (EP) did not document a neurological examination of the left wrist and hand. He did, however, note that the patient had a 2+ radial pulse and good capillary refill. The EP irrigated the wounds thoroughly and sutured the two lacerations. There was no documentation on file of wound exploration or imaging studies. The patient returned 1 week after discharge from the ED for a wound check, and again 6 weeks later. On both occasions, he continued to complain of pain and decreased function of his left thumb and index finger.

Since the patient’s condition did not improve, his father took him to an orthopedic surgeon. The orthopedist ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of the left forearm, which demonstrated a complete tear of one of the patient’s flexor tendons. The orthopedist thought it was too late to repair the tendon and referred the patient to physical therapy. As the patient continued to complain of pain and decreased function of his left thumb, he consulted a second orthopedist, who decided to surgically explore the wound to determine the cause of the patient’s continued pain and loss of thumb function. Surgical exploration revealed a piece of glass measuring 3.5 x 2 cm retained in the patient’s forearm. The orthopedist removed the glass, irrigated the wound thoroughly, and closed the incision, after which the patient’s thumb function improved considerably and his pain resolved.

The patient’s family sued the EP and the hospital, arguing that the wound should have been explored and the glass removed on the initial ED visit. They further stated that if these steps were performed initially, the patient would not have required multiple imaging studies and surgery. At trial, the jury returned a defense verdict.

Discussion

Approximately 11 million wounds are treated in US EDs each year.1 Proper management of lacerations and wounds requires more than sutures or staples. The EP must also evaluate for associated injuries (eg, tendon laceration, vascular injury), and the possibility of a retained foreign body. It is also important to ensure the patient is up to date on his or her tetanus immunization.

As with most areas of medicine, a good history and physical examination are essential. The mechanism of injury will often be the first clue to the risk of a retained foreign body. For example, shattered glass or porcelain carries a much higher risk of retention compared to a laceration from a box cutter.

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