Cosmetic surgeon sued for leaving sponge in patient’s forehead

LIHUE — A Kauai obstetrics and gynecology physician filed a malpractice suit against a Honolulu doctor and Athena Clinic for a surgical sponge she says was left in her forehead. The clinic is denying any wrongdoing in the matter.

Dr. Susan Littler and her spouse Jeffrey Abram filed a civil suit on July 31 in 5th Circuit Court against Dr. Robert Peterson. The practicing cosmetic surgeon runs Athena Clinic in Honolulu.

The suit claims Peterson and his staff were negligent during and after cosmetic procedures that included brow lift and eyelid surgery on July 14, 2011. The complaint alleges the clinic did not perform adequate follow up care and Littler has since incurred medical and rehabilitative expenses and ongoing health problems after a sponge was removed.

“This is not frivolous,” private attorney Teresa Tico said. She said it was a life-threatening situation and medical emergency.

“I am aware of the situation regarding Dr. Littler and we feel very sorry about this,” Peterson said.

The sponge count at the end of surgery was correct, he said. All sponges were accounted for and photos were taken at the completion of the operation to show there was no sponge present.

“We are therefore reasonably certain that the sponge was not left in there at the time of surgery,” Peterson said. “We do not know how the sponge got in her forehead — there are multiple possible explanations.”

Peterson is represented by attorney Tom Cook.  

Tico, who is serving as co-counsel in the matter with Laura Barzilai, said Littler was placed under anesthesia at the Athena Clinic for required cutting and pulling of the frontalis muscle. One or more surgical sponges were left inside of Littler’s forehead.

Litter complained of pain and vision problems from the lump on her forehead and eyebrows when she returned to the clinic for post-operative visits. She was allegedly informed that the lump is a routine consequence of surgery and instructed to take hot baths and massage the lump.

The lump was painful to the touch and Peterson pressed on it during a follow up appointment. Because Littler asked him not to, she is adding a civil assault claim to the complaint.

The doctor may not have intended to do harm, Tico said, but the action inflicted pain and it did turn out there was sponge that caused the swelling and was painful to the touch.

The lump grew to an embarrassing size over several weeks and caused headaches, impaired vision, soreness and itching. A Kauai physician diagnosed a bleeding hematoma after a CT scan and the sponges were discovered during surgery.

The sponges were reduced to strands and will require future surgeries. It may not be possible to remove all of the fibers in her head, Tico said.

The newly-established state Medical Claims Inquiry Panel met with both parties and recommended Littler file the suit. It was the second case presented to the newly-established panel that replaced a medical conciliation proceeding.

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