Although rare, such fires are not freak events possible under only specific circumstances. Instead, the FDA Safety Initiative database contains reports of approximately 550 to 650 annual surgical fires. According to the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation, approximately 65% of burns involve the head, face, neck and upper body and are predominantly fueled by excess oxygen. As one expert explained, the “high oxygen concentration can cause that fine body hair to be extremely flammable—a ripple of flames that spreads across the skin, traveling at 10 feet per second. Oxygen makes other things a fuel.”
Below are a few examples of recent fires causing significant injury:
- In November, 2011 a cyst removal surgery went awry when the cauterizing tool fueled by the patient’s oxygen mask erupted in flames. The 29 year-old patient suffered severe burns to her face.
- Similarly, sparks from an electronic scalpel used in a tracheotomy procedure ignited the oxygen supply to a patient, ultimately causes severe burns to his neck and chest.
- A Pennsylvania patient was awarded $250,000 in damages last year to compensate her for second-degree burns to her face, chest, larynx, trachea and lungs; the fire was caused by the administration of extra oxygen in violation of the surgeon’s orders.
- A Florida man who was recovering under anesthesia following surgery burst into flames after the alcohol-based antiseptic used in the procedure was ignited. This event is now the basis of a lawsuit currently before the Court. The judge recently ruled that the hospital can ultimately be held liable, noting that the “patient is in the defendant’s custody and control . . . [t]he patient is sedated—in essence, out of this world.”