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Were You or a Family Member Burned in a Surgical Fire?

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Lawsuits mount as patients undergoing surgeries suffer serious, life-changing, and life-threatening burns after catching fire on the operating table. Patients undergoing even the simplest procedures have reported-

  • Severe burns to the face and eyes
  • Severe neck burns
  • Vision loss from burns to the eyes
  • Esophageal burns
  • Burned lungs
  • Death

Most of these surgical fires occur when oxygen that is being pumped into the patient reaches an ignition source and a fuel. While these types of fires are not common, the truth of the matter is that some of these patients don’t even need the oxygen that is being pumped, and those who do need it are often given a higher concentration that what is medically necessary.

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Surgical Burns – Prevention is the Cure

While there has been a nearly 65 percent decent in the number of surgical fires that occurred over the past ten years, more needs to be done. Patients undergoing procedures should never have to worry that they may suffer life-threatening burns while they are being operated on. Yet, the Council on Surgical and Perioperative Safety does not believe that oxygen used during surgical procedures should be regulated.

According to the FDA, more than 600 surgical fires occur every year, with most causing injuries to the patients. In some cases, the burns cause serious and disfiguring second- and third-degree burns to the patient’s face, neck, and chest. Some of these fires can even spark in the patient’s airways causing significant internal injuries and even death.

Patients Burned in Surgical Fires

If a fire ignites during a surgical procedure, the patient and staff could be seriously injured. Burns, permanent scarring and disfigurement, and death have all been reported in surgical fires. For example, one patient suffered severe burns from her chest to head when the electrosurgical tool being used in her thyroid surgery ignited the oxygen she was being given. Her mouth, nose, and chin were described in media reports as ‘melted.’ She endured more than 12 surgeries to reconstruct her face and still has difficulty drinking, eating, and even breathing.

More reports of surgical burns can be found in the media, including a report of a patient who was seriously injured when her oxygen ignited during a laryngeal procedure. The patient’s trachea and lungs were severely burned. She remains on a ventilator. A patient undergoing reconstructive surgery after surviving breast cancer was seriously burned when a cauterizing tool ignited wet alcohol prep. Her mouth and tongue were seriously burned when her oxygen tube melted in flames.

A patient’s face ignited while surgeons were doing an artery biopsy in the patient’s temple. Her head, face, and eyes were severely burned when liquid anesthetic ignited. She also suffered internal injuries when the oxygen she was being supplied ignited.

Aside from the scars and disfigurement of burn injuries, research has shown that burn victims may also suffer serious psychological effects like acute stress disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal ideations.

How Surgical Fires Occur

Surgical fires are completely preventable and typically occur when there are three elements present during a surgery-

  • Ignition source – such as an electrosurgical unit or laser
  • Fuel source – such as the patient’s tissue, hair, skin, surgical drapes, alcohol-based skin preparation agent
  • The oxidizer – such as supplemental oxygen, nitrous oxide, or even the oxygen present in the room air.

Surprisingly, the proximity of the oxygen and a heat source is what sparks these fires, with most of the cause being high concentrations of oxygen.

Reducing Risks

To reduce the number of fires that occur each year, surgical teams are to complete a fire risk assessment at the beginning of each procedure during the universal protocol. This protocol is a process used by surgical units across the country to confirm that patients are having the correct procedures at the correct time. The risk assessment has three main questions and a point is given for each affirmative answer-

  • Is there an open oxygen source?
  • Is there a heat source?
  • Is the oxygen source and the heat source in close proximity?

A score of 3 is the highest level of risk while a score of 1 means there is low risk, not that there is no risk. To address a high fire risk, the surgical team should specifically check how the surgical drapes are applied and what type is used. They should observe appropriate drying times for alcohol-based prep solutions and the appropriate safe use of electrosurgical units and other heat sources. Oxygen concentration should be monitored throughout the procedure and carefully delivered starting with the lowest safest level for the patient. The fire risk assessment should also foster open communication in the operating room between the members of the surgical team about where the fire elements exist and it requires that any changes during a procedure must be communicated to the team so the risk of fire can constantly be mitigated.

When a surgical team fails to follow the risk assessment protocols and a patient is burned, the surgical team may be held responsible for the patient’s injuries and the patients may be entitled to seek compensation for those injuries and related damages.

Patient Information – Things You Should Know Before Undergoing Surgery

Before having a procedure, patients should question their risk assessment, such as if they will receive oxygen to the face, if they really need oxygen or if air is appropriate, and what protocols are in place to identify and prevent operating room fires.

Specifically, patients should know-

  • How Fires Occur – there has to be three elements present in the operating room for a fire to start: heat, a fuel source, and oxygen.
  • Prevention – Surgical fires can be prevented when the surgical team takes the proper precautions and communicates during the procedure.
  • The Greatest Risk – procedures that involve the head and neck pose a greater risk of ignition because of the oxygen rich environment that can be created from the patient’s breathing mask.
  • About Cleansers – alcohol-based skin preps are flammable and can pool in the folds of the skin. These cleaners must be allowed to thoroughly dry before a procedure begins.
  • About Surgical drapes – the fabric drapes can trap alcohol vapors from skin preps, may hide pooled liquid from alcohol-based skin preps, and can catch fire.
  • About Electrosurgical Tools – lasers, fiber-optic lights and cables, and tissue-cutting units may generate heat, or spark and start a fire.
  • About facial hair – patients receiving head or neck surgery may have any hair on their face (particularly eyebrows, bears, and mustaches) coated with a water-soluble jelly to reduce fire risk
  • Oxygen or Air – patients should be kept on room air whenever possible instead of highly concentrated oxygen. When oxygen is necessary, surgical teams should start with the lowest concentration that is safe for the patient.
  • Training – Understand the precautions that have been put in place to prevent, recognize, and remedy fires during surgery, including whether fire extinguishers are available in the operating room.

Surgery Fire Lawsuits

Patients who suffer devastating burns while undergoing surgical procedures may be entitled to significant compensation for their injuries. Surgical fires are preventable when the proper precautions are taken. You should not have to suffer because your surgical team failed to follow the proper standards for medical care. Patients who suffer burn injuries may be eligible to seek compensation for head, face, and neck burns as well as burns that involve the esophagus and lungs. These patients may seek damages for pain, disfigurement, terror, post-traumatic stress, loss of independence, and reduced enjoyment of life.

If you or a family member suffered surgical burns during an operation, contact us today. We have spent decades fighting for the rights of those who are injured by the negligence of others and we stand ready to fight for you now. Contact us today to learn if you are entitled to compensation for your surgical fire injuries.

Surgical Fires: Key Takeaways

Surgical fires can have devastating effects on patient victims, yet they continue to occur. Reports of patients being burned so severely their lives were shortened, patient’s dying from their injuries, and patient left disfigured and scarred and in pain continue. These patients and any patient who is burned in a surgical fire have rights. Here we discuss patient rights, surgical fires, and options that may be available to victims.

How Many Patients Are Burned in Surgical Fires

One continuing issue researchers are facing is that some states do not have rules that force facilities to report when a surgical fire breaks out. Because of this, researchers do not have a clear picture of how many fires occur each year, or how many patients have suffered injuries in these fires.

However, researchers estimate that up to 650 fires occur each year in operating rooms across the country but acknowledge that this number might be quite low. Patients in these fires suffer injuries such as painful and debilitating burns to the mouth, tongue, throat, and lungs, and severe and disfiguring burns to the neck, face, chest, and head.

Burn Information is Available  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published guidelines for surgical teams on how to decrease or eliminate fires during surgical procedures. Patients also have access to these guidelines and should read and discuss the measures with their surgeons before undergoing a surgical procedure. Medscape has also published these guidelines.

Need Legal Help?

Did you know that operating room fires are considered events that should never happen in a medical facility? This means that patients who suffer injury because the surgical staff failed to find and remove fire risks from the operating theater might be eligible to seek significant compensation for their burn injuries. Families whose loved one died of their surgical fire burns may also be entitled to seek redress for wrongful death.

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