surgical fires are patients waking nightmares

In September 2006, a 72-year-old woman from Pennsylvania suffered second-degree burns to her face and chest, as well as burns to her larynx, trachea and lungs. The woman was undergoing surgery when a nurse anesthetist administered extra oxygen to the patient but failed to tell the surgeon. When the surgeon activated an electrocautery device, it ignited the surgical drapes and caused a flash fire. Last year, a Pennsylvania jury found the nurse anesthetist negligent and liable for $250,000 in damages.

The story is horrific, and, unfortunately, it’s not the only one of its kind. Each year, there are between 550 and 650 surgical fires, and the surgical error usually results in severe or fatal burns to the patient.

More recently, a patient named Frank was lying in an operating room, barely cognizant from anesthesia. He heard a nurse yelling, “Oh, my God! He’s on fire!” and then he smelled his skin burning. He suffered second-degree burns to his shoulder, chest and neck.

The current average of more than one surgical fire per day is too much, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to help minimize the problem. The FDA created a safety initiative to help educate healthcare professionals. This week they’ll attend a webinar about preventing and stopping surgical fires. After that, more educational opportunities will follow.

Like many surgical errors, patients who suffer from burns during surgery often spend years recovering from injuries that they’re unable to prevent. Patients who are drugged with anesthesia may wake up to the realization that their bodies are on fire, and they are completely unable to defend themselves.

Because patients are so vulnerable, it’s critical that surgeons, nurses and everyone who is in the operating room communicate effectively to ensure surgical fires are not started. Read more in our next post to learn more about what causes surgical fires and the injuries other victims have suffered as a result.

Source:, “FDA focusing on patients catching fire in operating rooms,” Aisling Swift, Scripps Howard News Service, June 12, 2012

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