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Nick Woodhouse felt lucky to be alive after surviving a brain tumour, but the discovery of medical equipment that was left inside his body has left him pleading for help 13 years later. 

Woodhouse had to abandon a promising career as a competitive racecar driver in the U.K. when he started experiencing mysterious symptoms, including weight gain and extreme fatigue. He was eventually diagnosed with Cushing’s disease; the excess production of his pituitary gland was caused by a tumour in his head.

"I was close to death," explained Woodhouse, who is now a Vancouver resident. "I could hardly walk up the stairs."

But an exploratory procedure left him with a piece of a catheter in a blood vessel near his groin – and another full catheter was left behind during the surgery to remove the actual tumour.

His family doctor, Dr. Gregory Phillips, explained in a letter that the plastic catheter was left between two of his vertebrae, and “is causing persistent symptoms and issues with pain, difficulty walking, an intermittent CSF leak which causes issues with sodium metabolism and further loss of function.”

As Woodhouse grapples with headaches, back pain, fatigue and other issues from the devices left in his body, he said the surgeons involved have refused to acknowledge the problem. He said a complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons went nowhere, leaving him feeling like he has nowhere to turn.

“Everyone makes mistakes. I've made hundreds of mistakes," said Woodhouse. “If you're in my position, there's nowhere to go for help."

One of thousands

The discovery that health issues were caused by a misplaced medical device isn’t unique, and it’s actually becoming much more common than it used to be in Canada.

In November, a report released by the independent not-for-profit Canadian Institute for Health Information found that not only have such incidents spiked by 14 per cent since 2011, Canada has more than twice as many such incidents compared to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average.

Between 2016 and 2018, more than 550 objects were left behind in Canadian surgical patients.

The CIHI’s director of emerging issues told CTV News while the data doesn’t examine how or why these incidents happen, they are often smaller items like clips or sponges.

"Some surgeries are long and complicated and if they have to change people during that surgery because some surgeries last a long time, it may be that things get missed because of that,” said Tracy Johnson.

“It may be that they don't have protocols in place -- surgical checklists are one of the things that are utilized to try and prevent a number of things happening.”

What to do?

When CTV News asked the provincial health ministry if there was any follow up or analysis to the November report, the government said local health authorities are responsible for oversight.

Vancouver Coastal Health directs complainants to its Patient Care Quality Office, which notes patients should address issues with the person who provided the service or their manager. Those who don’t find a resolution there can submit a complaint through their website or by phone at 1-877-993-9199.

In November, Parksville mother Laura Jokinen told CTV News she lived with wires coming out of her body after an emergency C-section for 10 weeks before it was removed. It’s been a year, and she says her health authority still hasn’t taken responsibility.

“If they aren't taking any accountability how are we going to make any positive changes to our health care system?” she asked.

Woodhouse wants acknowledgement of the mistakes made, without expectation of compensation or the need for a blame game – something he wants to see system-wide, in addition for his own personal circumstance.

“I need to stop this leak in my spine and that requires someone taking this piece of plastic out," he said, explaining that when he spoke with a lawyer, he was turned away when he told them, “I don't want the money, I just want someone to help me.”

Considering his spine is involved, Woodhouse says he’s willing to sign any waivers a surgeon would require for the delicate work required to remove the material.

“With my first operation death was on the table. [With] this one, I assume paralysis and death are probably on the table,” said Woodhouse.

“Sign me up."