Patient Death Reinforces Need for Surgical Fire Precautions

HealthLeaders Media Staff, September 22, 2009

A patient's death following an operating room flash fire serves as a good reminder for surgical teams to review preventive measures.

It is also proof that this particular type of fire will generate above-normal interest from the media.

The incident occurred at Heartland Regional Medical Center in Marion, IL. The patient, identified by the Associated Press and other news outlets as Janice McCall, 65, of Energy, IL, died September 8 at another medical center after the fire allegedly burned her at Heartland Regional September 2.

Nearly four dozen-related news articles popped up on a Google search Monday from across the country, a status that few patient deaths reach.

Heartland Regional was tight-lipped about the incident when contacted Friday. "Right now, we are not going to comment on that," said a director of marketing. She hung up before answering other questions, and the hospital didn't return subsequent requests from HealthLeaders for information.

Robert Howerton, an Illinois attorney for McCall's family, told the Associated Press he has requested medical records from Heartland Regional, and otherwise had few details about the incident. Our attempts to reach Howerton were unsuccessful as of Monday afternoon.

Roots of surgical blazes are age-old
The causes of surgical fires have long been known, as these blazes require a confluence of elements known as the "fire triangle":

  • Ignition sources (e.g., electrocautery pens)

  • Fuels (e.g., drapes or alcohol prepping solutions)

  • Oxidizers (e.g., oxygen-enriched atmospheres)

A common scenario is for oxygen to pool in a fold of a surgical drape near an incision point. When a clinician activates an eletrocautery device, the heat of the device ignites the drape, causing a quick-burning flash fire. The fire is promoted by the presence of the pooled oxygen, though oxygen itself does not burn.

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