I felt betrayed: when simple surgery goes wrong

I used to be a pretty accomplished guitarist. Forty plus years of playing guitar, it was my joy, it helped me to relax, zone out, and it also gave others pleasure. The style I used was a finger picking style, rarely plectrum, as most of my music was country, folk and some Spanish.

So when I started getting pain in the end joint of my middle finger, right hand, it became quite painful to play, but I continued until after three years or so, the joint became crooked; as a touch typist this meant that I’d often type the wrong key. As a teenager I played a lot of netball, and on one occasion I had injured that finger joint, bending it back when reaching for the ball; a common netball injury.

So, time to get help. The pain had become excruciating. I saw my doctor and she recommended I see a specialist after having x-rays. But I put it off – another 18 months went by. We were in a different city by then and we knew we’d be there for a while as we were caring for an elderly relative, so I thought it would be a good time to get it fixed.

Another GP referred me to a well-known hand surgeon. We went along, the two of us, to his rooms. He measured the joint, he discussed the surgery. He told me that if I had fusion, I would retain the strength in the finger, but if I had joint replacement I would lose strength. He measured the angle and said he could straighten the joint and with a slight curve in the end joint there would have been no problem continuing with my music. So I chose fusion.

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I happily put myself in his hands. You trust your surgeon, don’t you? I arrived at the hospital at the appointed time and sat next to the nurse as she wrote my notes. I noticed a sticker on the front sheet asking the surgeon to please fill in the part about what surgery he was doing…then she drew an arrow on my right wrist.

I should add that the arthritic joint was obvious even to a lay person: it was badly swollen and crooked and was the only joint looking like that.

I walked into the operating room and was introduced to the staff, before discovering the anaesthetist had worked in the same city as I had in China, so a quick chat in Chinese; all ready. In comes the surgeon, straps my arm down, I say (in Chinese) how tired I was…

And woke to agonising pain. For two weeks, I was climbing the walls with pain. No help from the surgeon but the local pharmacist was wonderful and I was on a cocktail of drugs for the pain.

Time to get the dressings off. I went back to see the surgeon, I couldn’t look as he removed the dressing, then my husband said “I think you’d better look”.

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I burst into tears. The surgeon had fused the wrong joint! Correct finger, but the next joint down, not the one at the fingertip! The bent joint was still bent and swollen. I felt…betrayed. When he realised what he had done, he apologised, said how sorry he was that he had caused me such pain and any future surgery to fix it would be free.

It took another year of pain before I could get something near O.K., with the help of a different, wonderful surgeon who heard my story and first of all, he did the fusion of the correct joint. Then seven months later, after I’d had time for the trauma on the finger to settle, he did some surgery which he stated was “a challenge”. I was still in dreadful pain, the finger stuck out like I was giving a rude gesture, no way could I play guitar….so although technically fusion is irreversible, and he made no promises, he removed the fusion and gave me an artificial joint.

It’s now nearly four years since this happened. I will never play the guitar again. I cannot do intricate things like doing up buttons or shoelaces. I have no strength in that hand: if you hand me a bottle it will slip through my fingers. Opening jars or typing? No go. Getting out of a bath? Impossible: tried it twice and had to get help. My right hand is virtually useless. I could go on. The artificial joint does bend, just not independently.

Once the lawyers got involved, the surgeon’s story was different. Denial, denial. You’d think with all the medical records, x-rays, etc., it would be cut and dried. My lawyer even said it was a slam dunk. I’m not looking for a huge payout. Even the “independent” assessor/surgeon sat on the fence in his report, although to my face he said, “this happens all too often”. I’m looking for accountability. I’m looking for someone to say, from the hospital, “sorry we didn’t follow correct protocols”. The joint to be fused should have been clearly marked. From the surgeon: “sorry I didn’t follow protocols”. He didn’t clearly state which joint in his paperwork nor did he ask me in the operating room, what I was there for.

But this is a warning. Make sure when you have any surgery, however minor, that the team knows what they are doing! Ask them what protocols they follow. Surgeons are like the rest of us, they have good and bad days. Make sure they follow the protocols. And heed my story. The legal team are still working on this…so it hasn’t ended yet!

Have you ever had a surgery stuff-up like this? What happened? What would you do in this situation, or what did you do? Share your stories and thoughts below.