Six years ago, a woman in Pennsylvania was about to have surgery. She was probably feeling a bit scared (as anyone would), but also unaware of just how dangerous her procedure was going to end up being. Without telling the surgeon, one of the anesthetists "administered extra oxygen" -- fueling a fire when the surgeon activated an electrical device. The woman suffered second-degree burns to her face and chest, in addition to other internal burns along her throat and lungs. She was awarded $250,000 for such a traumatizing and negligent event.
You may hear that story and think a surgical fire is a "one in a million" event -- and though it might be, the perception that such an extreme surgical error could never happen in a Pittsburgh hospital is incorrect. The Food and Drug Administration says that somewhere between 550 and 650 surgical fires happen every year in the U.S.
The FDA is looking into the very serious threat posed by surgical fires, which start due to three elements: an oxidizer (like, well, oxygen), an ignition source (like electrical equipment) and fuel (such as drapes or sponges). Oxygen, though, is the main reason for many of these surgical fires according to the vice president of the ECRI Institute in Pennsylvania. Operating rooms are usually filled with oxygen, which can reach elevated levels if a procedure calls for it.
"The high oxygen concentration can cause that fine body hair to be extremely flammable," said the vice president of ECRI, adding that "oxygen makes other things a fuel."
Obviously this should be a major concern for both the FDA and patients alike. Many victims of surgical fires are either heavily sedated or not in a position to do anything about a surgical fire. They are dealt painful and severe burns because of such a surgical error -- it can even be a fatal mistake. Medical professionals with years of specialized training should know when oxygen levels reach a dangerous point and how to mitigate (or even prevent) a surgical fire.
When nurses, doctors or surgeons fail to uphold this expectation, they can be held liable for their negligence practices in a medical malpractice suit.
Source: KyPost.com, "FDA focusing on patients catching fire in operating rooms," Aisling Swift, June 12, 2012