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Patients catch fire during surgery

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Imagine you are a patient under anesthesia in the middle of surgery, when suddenly, you are engulfed in flames. This is what the FDA says happens more than 600 times every year in the U.S.

Dr. Peter Grossman is the director of the Grossman Burn Center in Los Angeles. He says the trouble occurs when an electrical tool or laser ignites the oxygen. And these tools are being used more and more during many different kinds of surgeries.

"The main cause of operating room fires are two things -- oxygen and a combustible source," says Dr. Grossman. "That source of electrical current, the body tissue, and the oxygen creates that explosion."

Catherine Reuter's mother was in surgery for a tracheotomy and caught fire after a cauterizing tool ignited the alcohol-based skin prep.  

"Initially when this happened, I thought my mom was the only person," says Reuter. "It started on her right shoulder, and from there it went up the right side of her face to her ear, her eyes, her mouth, her nose and her scalp."

Catherine says her mother knew she would not survive.

"I asked her what I could do to help her," says Reuter. "And she said there was nothing I could do, but I could educate others so this didn't continue to happen."

To help raise awareness, Catherine created the web site Surgicalfire.org. She says hospitals need to include the steps for surgical fire prevention as part of their standard operating room checklist.

"If this was added as one of the criteria for the OR checklist, my mother would have been spared this pain and suffering. And by not adding it, it's foolish and it's risky on the hospital's part," says Reuter.

To help reduce that risk, Dr. Grossman advises patients to discuss fire prevention with the operating room staff as you're being prepped for surgery.

"A lot of times what you just want to do is to raise awareness to the team of professionals who are working on you so they don't forget things that they know, but they just sometimes don't pay that much attention to," says Dr. Grossman.

And that's advice Cathy Reuter follows herself.

"I've had several surgeries since my mom and I ask," says Reuter. "This is something every hospital and ambulatory center should know about. If they don't have this education, I don't want them touching me."

Bottom line: Operating room fires are preventable. So if you or a loved one is about to have surgery, be sure to ask the medical team if they are aware of surgical fires and how they start. Do they know how to prevent a fire? And should one start – how are they prepared to stop it? Because operating room fires are real … and can happen to anyone.

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