A woman accuses her surgeon of leaving a sponge inside her when he performed her cesarean section 18 years ago

A Nevada woman is suing her doctor and the hospital where she gave birth via cesarean section in 2005, alleging that they left a surgical sponge inside her abdomen for 18 years.

Alma Núñez de Avelar “experienced increasing and decreasing pain and discomfort in her abdominal area” after giving birth to her son, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 18 against Summerlin Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas and the surgeon who treated her, Dr. Paul Wilkes.

The hospital told NBC News it does not comment on pending litigation. Wilkes did not respond to multiple phone calls and an email sent to his office Thursday.

Núñez de Avelar underwent surgery in March 2023 after medical tests showed a mass near her left ovary, according to the lawsuit.

The operation revealed that it was a laparotomy sponge, an absorbent pad that surgeons use to keep blood and other body fluids out of the area when they operate. Commonly known as a lap sponge, it can also be used to apply pressure to stop bleeding.

“After the sponge mass was detached from the left side wall, (the object) was removed from his body,” the lawsuit describes, noting that Núñez de Avelar does not believe the sponge was left intentionally.

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The lawsuit accuses the hospital of violating its “duty of reasonable and ordinary care” and failing to respect the health and safety of Núñez de Avelar. Indicates that the sponge caused him “years of pain and discomfort, worry and anxiety”and says she had no other abdominal surgeries aside from her C-section in March 2005 and the procedure to remove the sponge 18 years later.

The lawsuit accuses the hospital of negligence and seeks monetary damages, as well as a jury trial. Lawyers for Núñez de Avelar did not respond to multiple calls and emails from NBC News seeking comment.

It is rare for surgical tools and objects to be left inside patients, but it is not unheard of: the National Center for Biotechnology Information has estimated that forgotten “surgical bodies” occur in 0.3 to 1 in every 1,000 abdominal operations and are usually due to the lack of communication between surgical staff.

The particular situation of Núñez de Avelar is not without precedent. A 2018 report in the New England Journal of Medicine documented a woman in Japan who had two surgical sponges inside her abdomen for at least six years. The authors said the sponges were probably left there after one of the two cesarean sections the woman had had.

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There are established protocols to prevent these types of surgical mishaps. A 2016 guideline from the American College of Surgeons recommends standardized counting procedures for tools used during surgeries and a “methodical review of the wound before closure of the surgical site,” among other measures.

The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits hospitals, has similar recommendations, with suggestions to avoid surgical tool counting errors after staff lunch breaks or after shift changes.