surgical fires an all too real danger in operating rooms

Anesthesia errors, foreign objects left behind, procedures on the wrong site, post-op infections — these are the types of events we typically associate with medical malpractice in the surgical realm. While this listing is by no means inaccurate, it fails to account for another very serious event that can cause debilitating and serious injuries to patients.

While it may seem hard to believe, hundreds of surgical fires take place here in the U.S. every year when the oxygen released from leaking breathing tubes is accidentally ignited. Indeed, the Pennsylvania-based ECRI Institute identified surgical fires as one of the Top 10 Health Technology Hazards in its Report for 2013.

What makes these surgical fires so especially devastating is that they often occur near a patient’s face or neck, causing severe burns and other lasting structural damage in what essentially amounts to a momentary flare-up.

To illustrate the severity of surgical fires, consider a recent incident in the state of Washington, in which a woman suffered horrific burns during an otherwise routine laser surgery procedure.

In February 2012, the 55-year-old woman entered the hospital to undergo laser surgery to have polyps removed from her vocal cords. Tragically, a surgical fire erupted during the course of the procedure, causing devastating injuries to her throat and necessitating her transfer to a Seattle-area hospital, where she was hospitalized for several months for extensive care and multiple surgeries.

While the woman is able to swallow and suffered no brain damage during the ordeal, she has still lost the ability to speak, breathe without assistance or even go without some sort of long-term care.

The substantial settlement from the hospital, as well as the verdict against her providers in a medical malpractice lawsuit, should provide some degree of relief. However, it is still of little consolation when you consider all that she has lost, including the power of speech.

Not surprisingly, the hospital and providers determined that the surgical fire erupted when oxygen leaking from the breathing tube was ignited by the surgical laser. They have since introduced measures that they believe will prevent this type of tragedy from reoccurring.

Here’s hoping that these measures prove effective and that medical facilities across the U.S. are doing everything in their power to keep patients safe from surgical fires.

If you or your family were victimized by an egregious surgical error, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about how you can hold the responsible parties accountable in a court of law.

Source: The Wenatchee World, “Botched surgery will cost hospital,” K.C. Mehaffey, Dec. 6, 2013; The Philadelphia Inquirer, “The top ten hospital hazards,” Nov. 5, 2012

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