A woman in Romania undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer was accidentally set on fire, resulting in her death. Doctors used an alcohol-based disinfectant for the Dec. 22 procedure and then tried to operate using an electric scalpel, sparking a fire.
The 66-year-old sustained burns on 40 percent of her body and died a week later, according to BBC News.
In the meantime, the family of the Romanian woman — who, according to BBC News, was reportedly told there had been an “accident” — is still seeking more information from Floreasca Hospital in Bucharest. "We found out some details from the press, when they were broadcast on TV stations," the family said. "We aren't making accusations — we just want to understand what happened."
Victor Costache, Romania’s health minister and a cardiovascular surgeon, called the incident “traumatic” and in a statement shared by BBC News said, "We hope to learn from this troubling episode. Both myself and the Ministry of Health team that I coordinate will do everything possible to find out the truth."
The country’s deputy minister, Horatiu Moldovan, also issued a statement, saying this could have been avoided.
"The surgeons should have been aware that it is prohibited to use an alcohol-based disinfectant during surgical procedures performed with an electric scalpel,” Moldovan said.
Electric scalpels are surgical instruments that use “high-frequency oscillations in the form of a tiny electric arc at the point of cutting through or cutting away tissue.” As electric scalpels make an incision, they simultaneously sterilize the wound and cauterize, or seal, blood vessels.
However, this isn’t the first time an incident like this has happened. According to a 2007 Japanese study, during an operation on an 80-year-old woman with colon cancer, “a spark of the electric scalpel ignited the alcoholic antiseptic.” The woman suffered some second and third-degree burns on her body, and received skin grafts two weeks after surgery. She was released from the hospital after nearly two months.
“An alcoholic antiseptic is the most useful and has an immediate effect for preoperative disinfection of the skin according to the CDC guideline,” wrote the 2007 study authors. “However, electric scalpel and alcoholic use are always accompanied with the risk of ignition and sufficient caution is required.”
As a 2010 study points out, “there are antiseptic agents with strong inflammability used for skin preparation.” But those study authors also emphasized that incidents like these are rare, writing, “Surgical fire is a rare complication during the operative period. But, it is a severe complication when it occurs.”
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