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Watch the News Report: Patients Who Suffered Severe Burns From Fires During Surgery

TV news piece investigates the pain and the lawsuits that followed a rash of surgical fires in Washington, D.C., area.

Published: March 4, 2016

COMBUSTIBLE COMBINATION Electrosurgery, oxygen masks and drapes are behind many OR fires.

A local TV news station in Washington, D.C., caught up with victims of surgical fires, who share how the fires changed their lives.

Four of the incidents have triggered lawsuits, including one from the victim of an OR fire at a Virginia hospital who questioned whether the hospital followed through on patient safety improvements that could have prevented the never event.

The hospital has responded that, while it takes safety seriously, its individualized patient care plans resist the application of broad-brush protocols to every case.

Surgical patient Beverly Wilson suffered severe burns, dental injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder after the combination of electrosurgery, an oxygen mask and drapes around her face sparked a flash fire at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., in December 2013.

In her 2015 lawsuit, which she settled with the hospital on Monday, she pointed out that "Inova Hospital took steps designed to prevent operating room fires, including but not limited to discontinuing the use of oxygen face masks, lowering oxygen levels and requiring healthcare providers utilizing its operating rooms to implement a checklist of prevention steps before surgical procedures."

Those changes, her attorney argued, followed a similar incident at Inova Alexandria (Va.) Hospital in 2005. It, like many OR fires, started when surgical energies ignited oxygen from an anesthesia mask and pooled beneath facial drapes.

In a statement to a television news team, Inova discounted the lawsuit's allegations. "Quality care and patient safety are Inova's top priorities as we strive to deliver the best outcomes for our patients," a spokesperson explained. But, "the quote from 2005 should not have implied or, consequently, be understood as an absolute with respect to the use of an oxygen mask. Not every patient is intubated nor do nasal oxygen prongs meet every patient requirement.

"While I cannot address specific patient care plans, there are circumstances when a mask is required and/or is a patient's preference. These care plans are always developed with the patient in mind," the spokesperson added.

Inova did not immediately reply to a request for further comment.

The news report cites a Joint Commission estimate of 200 to 650 fires in American ORs each year, and highlights the cases of several other patients in the Washington, D.C., area who have suffered surgical burns during routine procedures. It also interviews a Maryland woman whose mother was an OR fire victim, who now runs the website SurgicalFire.org to raise awareness of the issue.

Surveying the region's major hospital centers, the news report found that most hold drills and safety education on the subject at least annually.

David Bernard


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