Everyone typically thinks of medical professionals as forthright, stalwart guards of their patients' health who rely upon years and years of training to do their job as if it's second nature. They do very important work and make good money, as they deserve to. It's a profession that only a select portion of the people want to get in are able to meet the tough requirements.
However, like any living, breathing person, medical professionals are not perfect. As the saying goes, 'to err is human.' They make mistakes just like the rest of us; however, because of the nature of their jobs, those mistakes can have dire consequences. Here are some of Reddit's craziest stories about medical professionals who royally messed up on the job. Content edited for clarity.
The Smallest Mistake Can Have Big Consequences
“I’m a lab tech and used to work in histology, which is the study tissue structures. One time I got a skin biopsy specimen and that day I was embedding, or basically putting the fixed tissue into wax so it could be mounted on a cutting block to slice 3-micrometer sections for staining.
It’s very important what side you place ‘down’ based on how it was cut out of the body. Well, I messed up and placed it sideways instead of down. The person cutting the tissue couldn’t tell and ended up cutting through the tissue. This was a problem because the patient had skin cancer and they were looking at how far it had spread. Since it was cut too deep, they couldn’t see the edges anymore.
This meant that the doctor had to cut a bigger piece of skin off to be sure they got it all. That’s when I found out it was a skin biopsy from the patient’s nose. This patient had to have a bigger, probably unnecessary piece of skin cut from his face cut off because of me. I was horrified and learned my lesson that day on how important it is to be certain of embedding technique.”
It’s A Painful But Necessary Conversation
“I’m a hospitalist, which an internal medicine doctor that specializes in hospital (inpatient) medicine. One time I had a lovely but truly unfortunate lady. She was in her late 40’s and had metastatic cancer. It had spread to her brain and even to her intestine, causing persistent bleeding. She was in and out of the hospital for about two months.
I knew she was dying. Her oncologist knew. I began talks about what to do if she got sicker and was nearing death, but she wanted ‘everything.’ I was off and my partner took over. She eventually got sicker (which I 100% expected), was bleeding again from her tumor, essentially coded, and was placed on a ventilator and sent to the ICU.
It should never have gone that far. I should have made her sign a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ because she had no hope of survival. She should have had a peaceful death. Instead, she was intubated and died in the ICU. Families and patients get mad at me when I try and discuss ‘end of life goals’ but that’s the reason I do it.”
Never Be Afraid To Speak Up
“I’m a med student and a few years ago when I was working as a medical assistant in an interventional pain management clinic, I was asked by the doctor to place a grounding pad (a sticky pad like they use for EKGs) on the patient’s leg during a radiofrequency (RF) nerve ablation procedure.
The patient had some lotion or something on her leg that was keeping the pad from sticking properly, but it seemed to be mostly well attached and I didn’t want to hold up the procedure to get another pad or clean off the patient’s leg. The pad ended up partially coming off right as the high-voltage RF was being applied, causing a small burn on her leg. There was no lasting damage done and the patient was very understanding, but I still felt horrible. It was the first time I had caused harm to a patient, and it could easily have been avoided had I just spoken up. Now I never hesitate to say something if I have even a slight feeling that something is off. Nothing is more important than a patient’s well-being.”
It Haunted Her For Quite A While
“This one took me years to get over. When I was a medical student on my surgery rotation, I was in the OR with only the attending surgeon. The residents on service were otherwise busy, so the attending surgeon (somewhat impatiently) decided, ‘Fine, I’ll do it with just the med student.’ It was a relatively straightforward case that involved placing a gastric tube for a patient who couldn’t eat.
The institution I now work at frequently does these under laparoscopic visualization, which is seen as overly cautious by some. Not me. The attending surgeon put a scope down the patient’s esophagus and I had a big needle to push toward the scope. He shined a light towards the skin when he’d entered the stomach and I pressed on the skin and saw it dent on the screen, showing we were in the right place.
I thought I took that exact same position and angle, and introduced the needle. However it didn’t show up on screen, so I pulled back. I pressed and tried again and still didn’t see it. The surgeon grew frustrated and told me to push the needle in deeper. I had a twinge of concern, but eventually jammed in the needle, which was several inches long. Eventually, the resident surgeon showed up and tried as well but could also never visualize it.
Eventually he switched places with the attending surgeon and after another try finally got the needle into the stomach and we finished placing the tube. Later that week, I came back after my day off to find out that the patient had died from internal bleeding. One of the multiple needle pokes had injured arteries in the abdomen. Now I know not to ignore that twinge, and I know that even ‘low-risk’ procedures have a risk of catastrophe and always take care to mention that when consulting patients for surgery. ‘Low-risk’ is not ‘no risk.’ I harbored guilt over it throughout medical school and still had hesitation the first time I did that procedure as a resident.”
He Felt Personally Responsible For The Long-Lasting Damage
“I’m a cardiac cath lab tech at a hospital and I’ve been in the medical field for almost 6 years. I was being cross-trained into computed tomography recently and was thrown into my first night shift by myself after a quick month of training. I had a script I spoke every time I would hook someone up to our power injector for a contrast study (the weird stuff that makes you feel like you pee all over yourself).
The injector I used in Cath lab is a LOT bigger and scarier than that little thing, but they are still dangerous. I also don’t worry about blowing IVs in cath lab since we normally go through a much tougher femoral or radial artery. We do two test injections of saline, one by hand and one by the injector to make sure the IV is patent and will tolerate the injection. 99% of the time this works and everyone is hunky dory; if it blows, the body will simply absorb the saline and you might get a bruise but no big deal.
This time, however the IV blew RIGHT at the beginning of the contrast dye injection (your body CAN’T absorb dye in any fashion) and the little pressure waveform on the injector remained ‘normal’ looking. She didn’t once cry out or scream as I injected 100cc of iodinated contrast agent into her forearm and I only noticed something was off when I started my scan and saw ZERO contrast in her torso.
I aborted the scan thinking the IV blew outside of the patient and walked into her quietly sobbing inside of the machine with an angry swollen arm about the diameter of a grapefruit. I pulled her out, wrapped a hot water soaked compress around her arm, held it over her head, and rushed her back to the ER. I found out later she had to go to surgery for it and has long-term nerve damage from the compartment syndrome she suffered.
I’ve had people die on my table and I’ve been on a code team for my entire term in cath lab (I respond to code blue/cardiac arrested) and see death and mutilation every day at my Level 1 Trauma hospital as the night tech. But that one stuck with me since I felt I was directly responsible for it despite being cleared. It caused me to change my WHOLE approach when doing my contrast studies. Now I tell people to scream bloody murder if their arm does more than burn now when I inject. Insult me, throw a shoe at my window, hit the big red emergency button on the wall, anything so I don’t disfigure someone again when my safeties fail and my machine lies to me.”
Quite The Slip Of The Tongue
“I do HIV testing and once I showed up to work super tired because I couldn’t sleep the night before. This guy came in for a test, we went through the pre-counseling, and then I told him to step out for a few minutes while the results were brought up.
Once he came back to get his results, I told him to take a seat and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Your results are positive,’ and then I saw the look on his face and that’s when I realized I’d messed up. I then said, ‘Oh no no no, I meant to say negative.’ I almost gave the guy a heart attack.”
Put Pride To The Side
“I was removing sutures on this patient which I literally did every 30 minutes for years. I had distinct difficulty removing them, which struck me as odd. The surgeon used a stitch I had never seen before.
I got them all out but I had a sneaking suspicion there were some left. But since I couldn’t see anything and figured I’d waste the surgeon’s time if I bothered them, I patched the guy up and sent him home. Usually, leftover suture gets pushed out of a healing wound. Two weeks later, the guy came back; the incision site was healed up but it looked swollen as heck and the skin looked like it was breaking down. It was all textbook infection.
Poor guy had to undergo an Incision and Drainage to clear out the infection and then take months of antibiotics. I told the doctor what happened and she said it happens like 1 in 100. This was like 8 years ago, so I check very thoroughly now and when in doubt get a second set of eyes. It’s not worth putting someone through pain or discomfort because of your pride.”
“In One Simple Omission, I Messed That Up Royally”
“I work in palliative care and in the fall, I sent a patient home to see if he could die there instead of in the hospital. We weren’t very hopeful but thought it would be worth a try. To no one’s great surprise (even his and his wife’s), he ended up coming back a couple of days later for whatever reason.
I readmitted him since I knew him, and I knew he wanted to be a DNR (do not resuscitate) so I wrote it on my note…but I didn’t re-fill out the hospital paperwork. The next day, I got to work to discover he’d been coded and was on a ventilator in the ICU. Instead of passing peacefully, his wife had to make the decision to turn off life support. My entire job at the end of life is to ensure as good a death as I can, and in one simple omission, I messed that up royally.”
It Was A Very Awkward Interaction
“Before medical school, I was working as a phlebotomist during undergrad to gain exposure to the medical world. When I worked the night shift, our daily list of blood draws would print off around 1 am and I would start getting blood on the floor around 4 am.
I got really good and could sneak in, lights off, tell the patient what I was doing, quickly draw blood, and get out while they were barely awake. Well, one morning I went into a room and the patient had had a washcloth over his eyes. I told him who I was and what I was doing before tying the tourniquet around his arm and palpating a vein. Just then, his wife walked in and said, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!’
I replied, ‘I’m so and so and I’m here to draw his blood.’
She said, ‘HE DIED OVER AN HOUR AGO!’ You can only imagine the horrified look on my face as I ripped the tourniquet off and apologized as I was running out of the room. Even after med school and residency, that’s still my most embarrassing moment in healthcare.”
He Felt Bad For Making The Man Feel Lesser
“Once as a tired medical resident, I was called to the ER to admit someone at like 3 in the morning. This bonehead had his gall bladder removed a week prior and now had a surgical-site wound infection.
I asked if he’d taken his post-op antibiotics he was prescribed but he wasn’t sure. I was getting more and more frustrated with this dumb person preventing my sleep when I decided to use a ‘pregnant pause’ interview technique, and just shut up. This usually resulted in either awkward silence and the patient saying, ‘Uhh what, doc?’ or awkward silence followed by some useful deep revelation.
In this case, the guy hung his head low, looked at his feet through unfocused eyes, and started to sniffle while his halting voice cracked, ‘I can’t read. Never could. Didn’t know the instructions they wrote down for me and didn’t know I had medicine to buy. I didn’t ask them because I was embarrassed.’ Illiteracy haunts both rural and urban places in most countries. Those folks aren’t reading this and they depend on our patience, understanding, and acceptance to detect and bridge that vast communication gap. That’s what stuck with me.”
One Medical Check Totally Slipped His Mind
“When I was a new paramedic, one day we were called to a house for an unknown problem. We arrived and found our patient unresponsive but breathing on a bed. A friend of his found him after he hadn’t returned his phone calls; they were going out to do something that day, and he found it weird that the guy hadn’t called him yet, so he’d gone to his house to investigate.
The patient didn’t have any medicine bottles laying around and his friend didn’t know anything about the patient’s medical history. I loaded him up into the ambulance and started transporting him to the hospital. Started an IV, did an ECG, drew blood work, the whole work up. We got him to the hospital and the first thing the nurse asked was ‘What was his blood sugar level?’ Oops. Forgot to check it. Turns out, it was incredibly low, which can be dangerous if untreated. Every patient gets a blood sugar check now.”
A Simple Mistake Can Land Someone In The Hospital
“Pharmacy technician here. One day, I was much too stressed and started rushing. Instead of Prednisone 5mg (a type of steroid), I used Prednisone 50mg. The pharmacist checked it and didn’t catch it, but I realized when I was putting my stock bottles away. Luckily it hadn’t gone out yet so I fixed the mistake and vowed to be 100% dedicated to one task at a time. A few months later, somebody made the exact same mistake but did not catch it, and the patient ended up in the hospital for a few months.”
Why Doctors Should Get A Full Night’s Sleep
“I’m not a medical professional but a patient who was almost victim to a simple, yet potentially fatal mistake. I have cardiac catheterizations and biopsies every year (transplant recipient) and one year I was hospitalized the night before the procedure to receive IV fluids. During a catheterization, they insert a catheter into my femoral artery and inject dye to look at my coronary arteries and biopsy a small piece of my heart.
The night before my cath a few years back, my nurse came in and started hanging up a bag of what I figured was basic fluids. But upon closer inspection I noticed it was heparin, a blood thinner…the day before I was going to have my artery opened. I could have bled out. Luckily, my mom noticed and questioned the nurse who then talked to the physician. The physician ran in apologizing profusely and said she had been up for more than 24 hours and wrote herself up for the error. Crazy to think about how easy it is to make such a big mistake and how overworked physicians are.”
It Was A Literal Wake Up Call For Him
“I’m an EMT ending my first year working at a collegiate EMS squad in New Hampshire. Our dear college is known for drinking and going a little too hard in the party department (we’re still smart cookies, I swear), so although we get a good amount of trauma/other medical calls from sporting events and other stuff just responding to the town the college is in, we also get a whole lot of intoxication calls.
I once got a call that seemed like a standard intox—our female patient was really embarrassed we had been called, as remorseful wasted people often are, and was really distraught and crying. She refused to talk to me or my two crew partners, but we were able to get a full suite of vitals that were all normal. I went to put her shoes on to get her ready for transport to sleep it off at the college’s inpatient department and she refused to let me touch her, picked out the only female EMT, and said she only wanted her to help her.
The males in the room stepped outside for a second because at that point we were a little suspicious. This girl was leaning against her own bed and didn’t know where she was, how she got there, or what time it was. She at least knew her name, but other than that she seemed messed up. But when we had a straight line she walked it almost perfectly. Then she told the female EMT she felt unsafe and didn’t trust us, which we, of course, heard in the hall through the open door.
Once she was transferred, the only follow up we got on her was that it was a probable physical assault, which was on my mind after the call ran its course but didn’t occur to me immediately. It was the first possible assault I’d been called to and it kind of disturbed me seeing this girl just messed up out of her mind, crying hysterically, saying she felt bad we were called, and then not trusting the people who were there to help.
Assault can really destroy people’s trust and make them anxious beyond rationality. After that call, I go into every scene looking for signs of assault or abuse. Honestly, most college campuses have a problem with it and it’s so often related to drinking. I should’ve been more prepared to deal with it, but I’m glad that call kinda woke me up so to speak. You never know what might’ve happened to your patient that they don’t want to tell you, and that’s a lesson that’s generalizable to calls beyond college and partying.”
A Mother And Her Newborn Could Have Been Seriously Hurt
“I had a patient years ago for induction of labor. I knew her IV was good cause I’d put it in myself and it hadn’t blown. I kept turning up the medicine per protocol but there no contractions. Later that afternoon, I moved the bed and discovered the IV had come apart and I had been giving the floor oxytocin for hours. I replaced the contaminated IV parts and plugged it back in, not thinking far enough ahead to realize I was essentially starting her meds at 10 times the starting dose.
She immediately started having contractions, closer and closer together until it was one big constant contraction and we couldn’t stop it. She was rushed to the OR and had an emergency C section under general anesthesia. That’s completely what you don’t want in a birth experience because it carries great risk of complications and/or death.
I felt absolutely terrible and they wouldn’t let me tell her and apologize. The family never knew what happened or whose fault it was. Fortunately, there were no adverse incidents (besides a huge scar and having the crap scared out of you) and mother and baby were safe. The other thing I learned from this was how to criticize someone. The head doc took me out in the hall and quietly asked, ‘Do you understand what you did?’ and ‘You get how that happened, right?’ and that was the end of it. I have used that technique with students’ big mistakes and have been successful. Students listen and don’t get defensive or angry. They learn from it and never repeat it.”