Could You Catch Fire During Surgery?

July 20, 2006 — -- A recent scene from the TV show "Grey's Anatomy" showed a particularly hot surgery -- in fact, a fire had broken out in the operating room.

Unbelievable, right? Not exactly. Fires in operating rooms happen more than 100 times each year.

Twenty percent of these fires cause harm. Catherine Lake's mother was one of the unlucky patients.

"The surgeon explained to me that there had been an incident," Lake said. "He went on to say that she was burned, and initially, I was shocked."

The fire that burned Lake's mother occurred in 2002 during an operation to aid her breathing. By the time doctors noticed smoke coming from the incision in her throat, flames hidden by surgical drapes had already reached her face, shoulders and neck.

Lake said she couldn't understand how the fire broke out.

"It's a hospital -- it's an operating room -- these things don't happen there," she said.

How Do They Start?

But Albert de Richemond studies medical equipment accidents and said most operating room fires aren't caused by mechanical problems.

"Probably the biggest underlying cause is too much oxygen getting into the site," he said. "It's a reactive chemical and exposed to heat with things to burn nearby ... a fire can erupt."

De Richemond said surgical fires are especially dangerous, because the "patient is unconscious and can't feel anything and can't tell the staff."

Still, the responsibility ultimately lies in the operating room.

"Communication among the surgical team is critical to prevent surgical fires from occurring," de Richemond said.

Catherine Lake's mother died 18 months ago because of a separate medical accident. Before she died, she asked her daughter to spread the word about surgical fires.

"It's about letting the public know that there are things that can happen in operating rooms that you don't know," Lake said.

Surgery Pointers

Head/Neck Surgery the Riskiest: You should be most concerned if you are having head or neck surgery because that's when the surgical tools and oxygen are closest together.

Know Your Doctor: As with any surgery, choose a doctor and a hospital that perform the procedure a lot.

Ask About Oxygen: Ask the anesthesiologist whether he or she administers pure oxygen throughout the surgery. It's better if the anesthesiologist uses it only as needed or uses a diluted formula.

Ask If the Team Is Trained to Deal With Fires: And finally, ask the surgical team if it has training in putting out operating room fires.