ST. LOUIS — A southern Illinois woman died after being severely burned in a flash fire while undergoing surgery, a rare but vexing dilemma in operating rooms. Janice McCall, 65, of Energy, Ill., died Sept. 8 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., six days after being burned on the operating table at Heartland Regional Medical Center in Marion, Ill., her family's attorney said.
Attorney Robert Howerton said he had requested medical records from the Marion hospital and that he had few details about what happened. He declined to say why McCall was having surgery.
The Tennessee state medical examiner's office said McCall died from complications of thermal burns and classified her death as accidental.
"The family is in shock and suffering their grief," Howerton said Thursday. "Every family has an anchor, and she was it. They're really just devastated."
Heartland said in a statement only that "there was an accidental flash fire in one of the hospital's operating rooms," injuring a patient before being immediately extinguished. The hospital didn't say how the fire started, but it said, without elaborating, that it was responding with "necessary and appropriate measures."
Heartland declined to comment further on the case, citing the family's request for privacy and federal laws barring the public release of patient medical information.
Surgical flash fires are most often are sparked by electric surgical tools when oxygen builds up under surgical drapes. They occur an estimated 550 to 600 times a year – a tiny fraction of the millions of surgeries performed in the U.S. annually – and only kill about one or two people each year, said Mark Bruley, vice president for accident and forensic investigation at the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit health research agency.
Concern over such blazes waned after the 1970s, when highly flammable agents such as ether gave way to safer anesthetics.
But worries have mounted in recent years with increased use of electrosurgical devices and the replacement of cloth hospital drapes with those made of more-flammable, disposable synthetic fabric. Bruley's organization has recommended that anesthesiologists stop using 100 percent oxygen and deliver only what the patient needs, perhaps by diluting the oxygen concentration with room air when surgical tools such as electronic scalpels and cauterizers that could ignite a fire are in use.
"What we've been advocating for years is that the open delivery of oxygen under the drapes essentially has to stop," with some exceptions such as cardiac pacemaker surgery or operations involving a neck artery, Bruley said.