A Colorado veteran's widow is suing the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City because doctors left a "very large" surgical sponge in the man's abdomen during an operation that ultimately led to his death, according to a lawsuit.

Louise M. Moore of Grand Junction, Colo., and her children, Bradley Clark Moore and Pamela K. Taylor, filed suit in federal court Friday. They are asking for at least $1 million in punitive damages as well as compensation for the loss of the man's company, emotional pain, funeral expenses, legal fees and other costs.A VA spokesman said the hospital has no comment on the lawsuit.

The husband and father of the plaintiffs, Elmer L. Moore, 65, underwent surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm at the Salt Lake City VA hospital on Sept. 17, 1996. That surgery went well, but during the next four or five months, Moore suffered increasingly severe abdominal pain, the lawsuit said.

Moore sought hospital help but "was told he was fine and having normal post-surgical pain," the suit said.

He went to the veterans hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., in March 1997 because the pain had become so severe. Tests there revealed an 18-inch sponge inside his abdomen, court documents said.

The lawsuit said he returned to the Salt Lake VA hospital for surgery to remove the sponge March 29, 1997, and doctors also removed about 2 feet of Moore's bowel. However, fragments of the sponge had become "firmly embedded" into the bowel wall and could not be removed, the lawsuit said.

Moore's condition did not improve. Doctors did other tests, then another surgery for what they thought was a bowel obstruction, the suit said. However, the fragments of sponge that had been left inside had caused an abscess and multiple adhesions, so surgeons removed about 15 centimeters of the bowel, the suit said.

Court documents said Moore's condition worsened, the retained sponge caused serious complications, Moore's lungs began to fail and he was put on a respirator. After a third operation, Moore was put in intensive care in critical condition. On May 3, 1997, it was determined that there was no hope for Moore's recovery so life support was withdrawn and he died, the suit said.

An autopsy showed "the cause of death was determined to be a foreign body reaction to `a surgical device' and complications resulting from the retained sponge," the lawsuit said.

Barbara L. Townsend, the attorney who represents Moore's family, said this has been a difficult year for Louise Moore that has been made even more difficult because of slow action by the VA. Townsend said she has contacted the VA during the past nine months and talked to several people but got no relief for her clients.

"The response I got was that they were very busy and had other cases pending," Townsend said.