After 67-year-old Hurshell Ralls went into surgery for bladder cancer, he came out of surgery missing more than he ever expected. His penis and testicles were gone.
"My wife had to hold my hand in the bed there. And she said 'Honey it's over. They got all the cancer.' And she waited a few minutes and then said 'But they had to remove your penis.' And I was one mad dude, you know," Ralls said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
Ralls, a mechanic, says doctors never warned him or his wife that amputation of the penis and testicles might have been part of surgery before he went in for the procedure in November 1999. Ralls filed a negligence lawsuit against the Clinics of North Texas in Wichita Falls, and the doctors who operated on him. The civil case is set for trial Aug. 25.
"It was never even discussed. And I felt like he ought to have at least told us that this might be a possibility so that we could have talked it over even before he was admitted to the hospital," said Thelma Ralls, his wife. In a February deposition, Ralls' doctor said that he determined the cancer had spread to the penis while he was removing Ralls' bladder. Doctors did not send a tissue sample to the lab until after the surgery. A Dallas doctor who examined cell slides later found that Ralls did not have penile cancer.
The Ralls' case may sound outrageous, but for cancer patients across the country, medical errors are something they — and many other hospital patients — face with alarming frequency.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in 2001 that 95 percent of doctors have witnessed a major medical mistake, and that many of them involved cancer. When Johns Hopkins reviewed tissue samples from thousands of cancer patients around the country, they found one out of every 71 cases was misdiagnosed.
Both Breasts Removed, No Cancer
Frank Barerra is another cancer patient who was the victim of an error. He was actually in surgery, about to have his prostate removed, when a call came from the pathology department — there had been a mistake. His slides showed no cancer.
"You can imagine — it was like waking up from a bad dream," Barerra said. "It never occurred to me that a pathology lab could just bungle a decision like that."
Last January, Good Morning America interviewed Linda McDougal, who was misdiagnosed with breast cancer. McDougal was given a double mastectomy at the United Hospital of St. Paul, Minn., in May 2002. After the surgery, McDougal was told that she actually had no signs of cancer.
"My surgeon walked in and said that she had bad news, and she had no other way of telling us other than to put it on the table. And that I didn't have cancer," McDougal said. "And my immediate reaction was, great, you got it all. And then she said, you don't understand. You never had cancer. And it was instant shock. I couldn't even react to it."
When McDougal appeared on Good Morning America, the hospital that did the operation offered an apology. Dr. Laurel Krause, a senior pathologist at the hospital said that two patient slides at the hospital were inadvertently switched.
"We deeply regret what happened, and wish we had made that clear at the time," Krause said. "At the time, Linda was very angry, and justifiably so."
But to victims of medical errors, sometimes an apology can't make up for what they've lost.