Mistaking an Ovary for an Appendix

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader has the gobsmacking story:

My story isn’t one of my pain being ignored, but rather one about a doctor’s lesser familiarity with the female body almost having enormous consequences for my health. When I was 15, I had severe abdominal pain and went to the ER with my mom. After several hours I was diagnosed with appendicitis and brought into surgery for an appendectomy. So far, so routine.

After I came out of surgery, a nurse approached my mom quietly and said, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but I think you should know and might want to get your daughter checked out because of something that happened during surgery.”

Apparently, the male surgeon had seen swelling in one of my ovaries while rooting around in my abdominal cavity and thought it was abnormal. Since I have two ovaries, and he was already in there, he announced to the operating room his plan to remove the ovary, without informing me or my parents, since it was an “emergency.”

Thank God another practitioner in the room stopped things and got them to wait for a consult from someone with expertise in women’s reproductive health. The nurse told us that person took a look at me on the operating table and said, basically: “Uh, that’s what ovaries look during ovulation. Leave them alone.”  

I’m fine—appendix free, and I just had a pregnancy, so it seems like there was no damage from whatever other nonsense he may have pulled during my surgery. But I think about that all the time:

1) that something happened that was so out-of-norm the nurse risked her job to tell us about it, but there was no hospital process that would have given us similar warning or honesty, 2) that a surgeon who presumably spent much of his career inside the torsos of people of all genders could be that unfamiliar with a normal range of how women’s reproductive systems look, and 3) that his respect for me, my mom, and my desire to keep my body parts was so low it didn’t occur to him that it would be crazy to make a decision about it without consulting us.

I’m a lot more wary with all doctors now and definitely select for women more aggressively, in a way I wish I didn’t have to; I’m sure there are plenty of trustworthy doctors who are men out there. I just don’t want to be in a position where the test of their respect for my agency comes after they are already inside my body.    

This woman wasn’t so lucky:

A pregnant woman suffering from appendicitis died on the operating table weeks after a surgeon mistakenly removed her ovary instead of her appendix, medical watchdogs heard on Monday.

Mother-of-three Maria De Jesus, 32, was 20 weeks pregnant with her fourth child when she was admitted to Queen's Hospital in Romford, Essex, a Fitness to Practise Panel of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) heard. The “complicated” operation was carried out at the weekend by a junior surgeon who removed her ovary in error, while the more senior consultant had gone home.

Less than three weeks later she was readmitted again suffering abdominal pains and the mistake was discovered. But two days after that De Jesus, from Dagenham, miscarried her baby boy and died on the operating table after having the appendix removed.

Dr Yahya Al Abed has admitted removing De Jesus’ right ovary in error at the panel hearing sitting in Manchester. He denies misconduct.