Airman, 20, loses both legs in botched gallbladder surgery

A 20-year-old airman was in critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center on Monday, after losing both legs in what his family described as complications of routine gallbladder surgery.

Neither the medical center nor Travis Air Force Base, where Airman 1st Class Colton Read underwent surgery earlier this month, would comment on specifics of his case.

Travis said only that a "serious medical incident" occurred at its David Grant Medical Center on July 9 and is being investigated by the base, a national hospital accrediting commission and the U.S. surgeon general.

Read, who was stationed at Beale Air Force Base east of Marysville, was supposed to get his gallbladder removed laparoscopically at the Travis hospital, said his wife, Jessica Read.

Instead, a device being threaded into his belly nicked or punctured the aorta, a large artery that carries blood from the heart throughout the body, she said.

Surgeons opened his abdomen and were able to repair the breach well enough to save his life, but in the process or afterward, something apparently disrupted the blood supply to his legs.

Jessica Read said she was told the aorta was sewn together incompletely and began leaking, and her husband was flown to UC Davis Medical Center late that afternoon for more specialized vascular surgery.

Her uncle, Dr. Michael Hines, a Texas surgeon, said he was told by the UC Davis surgeon who operated on Colton Read that two branching vessels from the aorta that carry blood to the legs were clotted and closed.

When the surgeon restored the blood supply to those iliac vessels, the legs were so badly swollen and damaged that blood circulated only down to the knees, leaving dead tissue below, Hines said.

Colton Read has undergone multiple surgeries that removed first the lower-right leg, then the lower-left and more of the right, his wife said. The latest surgery, which began Monday evening, was expected to take more tissue from his right thigh, perhaps up to his hip, she said.

The remaining portion of his left leg now appears to be healing well, but it, too, was amputated above the knee, Jessica Read said.

She has heard conflicting accounts of what happened to her husband at Travis — that the surgeon made the initial error, or that it was a mistake by a second-year surgical resident.

Hines, her uncle, said that as a surgeon who has been in practice for 30 years, "I understand how you can puncture something that you don't mean to. That's a recognized complication. The measure of a surgeon is how well they handle those complications."