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Medical Error Expert Talks About Losing Leg

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
UF Health
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Dr. Frederick Southwick, University of Florida professor of medicine, literally wrote the book on preventing medical errors. The ironic part? He ended up losing his own leg because of a mistake during surgery. 


"Here I am, I understand errors. I'm trying to prevent errors, and yet I suffered an error myself," Southwick said. 

A year ago, two months after his book came out, Southwick started having calf pain. It turned out the blood flow to his lower leg had been blocked in the years after his 1995 surgery to repair his Achilles' tendon.  

Southwick decided to take a look at the operating room report from the surgery he had in 1995. 

"I realized they used a large tourniquet at high pressures for a prolonged period of time and came to the conclusion that this pressure cuff had injured my arteries and they had progressively scarred over time," Southwick said.

Earlier this year, he wrote about his experience in a column in the New York Times. He said it generated more than 100 comments and emails. 

"When I discovered I lost my leg because of an error, obviously I was shocked and dismayed. I thought, wow, if I could share this story, it could make a difference," Southwick said. 

Given the Institute of Medicine's estimate that errors lead to 100,000 preventable deaths each year, Southwick calculates that errors injure about 1 million people each year.

"I am hoping that caregivers will begin to realize that they need to create better systems for care so they don't inadvertently injure patients," he said.

Southwick said the first few months with his prosthetic leg were difficult but he's now back to work, and started doing rounds in the hospital again in June. 

"You can get over these things," he said. 

He's even rowing, using a special prosthetic leg with a fixed ankle, and he plans to enter  the Halifax Summer Regata competition at Daytona Beach in June.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.