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Surgeon Removes Wrong Lung

63-year-old Richard Flagg, a Vietnam vet, died on September 8, 2003 from complications of medical malpractice. Three years before, Richard, a barge captain in New York harbor, was diagnosed with a benign bleeding tumor in one of his lungs. His surgeon scheduled surgery to remove part of the affected lung.

In a later statement, Flagg said, “At the time it was considered to be optional surgery, and the only reason it was there was because I was having bleeding problems if I ever had a lung infection.”

His doctor removed more than half of the wrong lung. When Flagg’s painkillers wore off, he realized that the site of the surgery was different than what had been planned, and he asked the doctor why he had operated on the other side. To cover up this mistake, the doctor told him, “While you were asleep, we did an x-ray and we found a much larger, a much more dangerous, tumor in your right lung, as well as severe hemorrhaging. By doing this operation, I probably saved your life.”

Six months later, in the spring of 2001, Flagg saw a pathologist’s report showing that his right lung was healthy before the operation. But by that time, Flagg needed oxygen 24 hours a day and was permanently connected to oxygen tanks. Flagg sued the surgeon, but the malpractice insurance company waited until Flagg died on September 8, 2003, before settling the claim. Flagg’s attorney, Charles Rock, said that they knew the value of his claim would drop dramatically after his death.

Before the surgery, Flagg had been a robust barge captain in the Merchant Marines. Instead of being able to pursue his living, he died needlessly, penniless and in debt. No charges were filed against the surgeon.