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Breasts removed by mistake; paperwork slip-up blamed

Linda McDougal
Linda McDougal

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Linda McDougal got a double-mastectomy for a cancer she didn't have.
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Linda McDougal was told she was suffering from an aggressive form of breast cancer. Her breasts, she was told, would have to be removed.

She was told wrong.

A paperwork mistake cost Linda McDougal both her breasts and left her suffering infections, facing more surgeries and trying to rebuild her life.

McDougal underwent the double mastectomy last year. Forty-eight hours after her breasts were surgically removed, McDougal's doctor broke the news to the patient and her husband: The surgery had been unnecessary; she had never had cancer.

"I was rendered speechless," McDougal recalled. "I was in shock. And within moments we were both crying."

"It's taken me seven months to get to the point where I can really talk about it," she said. "I'm still infected. I can't continue with the reconstruction [surgery]."

Officials at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, told McDougal the "tragic mistake" began in the pathology lab, where her biopsy slides and paperwork were mixed up with another patient's because they were sitting in the same tray.

The pathologist who made the mistake "is also the very first person who identified and reported the error," said Laurel Krause, senior pathologist at United Hospital.

The pathologist, she said, had not been punished for the oversight. "This person has been instrumental in developing the new guidelines to help us ensure additional safety so that such errors never occur again," said Krause.

More scrutiny recommended

Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University recommended that anyone who is very sick or faces a bad diagnosis should go to a regional medical center that is associated with a medical school.

"I advise my patients to go to the top place in the region," he said. "There's more scrutiny, there's more structure, there's more vigilance at the top medical centers."

McDougal survived a medical mistake, but thousands of others aren't as fortunate. Between 44,000 and 98,000 patients die every year because of medical errors, the Institute of Medicine reported in 1999.

Experts agree that many medical errors are caused not by the incompetence of doctors and nurses, but by institutional problems.

The problem can be as simple as medications with similar names being stored next to each, leading to patients getting the wrong drug. Or different dosages of the same drug packaged in almost identical packaging, so patients could receive an overdose.

Improvements are in the works.

Companies now make stickers to apply to patients' bodies to avoid having busy doctors operating on the wrong limb or organ.

Many hospitals and healthcare providers believe the use of handheld computers could prevent mistakes caused by sloppy handwriting.

New safety measures also have been set in place at United Hospital's pathology laboratory.

"We have now put in additional safeguards of color coding the slides and paperwork," said Krause. "We also have only one patient case per tray of slides. And we have a second pathologist completely review all aspects of the case validating the color code, the name and identification number and having to agree with the first pathologist's diagnosis," said Krause.

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