Flash Fire Kills Woman During Surgery


A 65-year-old woman was severely burned while on the operating table in Mario, Illinois at the beginning of the month. She died less than a week later at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. It is unknown at this time what the woman was having surgery for, if this played a role in the fire, or even what caused the fire. However, Tennessee state medical examiner’s office says the woman died from complications of thermal burns.

According to the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit health research agency, an estimated 550 to 600 surgical flash fires occur each year. One or two people are killed as a result of these fires. They are most often caused when oxygen builds up under surgical drapes, which is then ignited while using electric surgical tools. Though this is an astronomically small number compared to the millions of surgeries performed each year, the families of those injured and killed are left devastated. Some of them eventually file medical malpractice suits against the hospital.

Flammable gases, such as ether were used up through the 1970s, but the advent of safer anesthetics lowered this danger. However, it has been noted that surgical drapes are made of a disposable synthetic fabric that is more flammable than the cloth drapes they replaced. This has given rise to some concern that chances for flash fires are still a threat in a different way.

ECRI has recommended anesthesiologists dilute oxygen needs delivered to patients, especially when electronic surgical tools are used that could start a fire. Right now, 100 percent oxygen is delivered by anesthesiologists.