CLEVELAND — A beautiful young woman underwent what was supposed to be a simple surgery at an outpatient center, but ended up horribly scarred.
Lauren Wargo was a vibrant, 20-year-old college student home for Christmas break when the terrible burn happened.
The surgery was to remove irregular moles from her eyebrow and back, but when she awoke from anesthesia, she heard the nurses telling her parents, “There had been an accident.”
“I remember my dad just crying,” said Lauren, “His reaction to how I looked was terrible.”
The accident was a surgical fire.
After it happened, Lauren’s parents were told she suffered the equivalent of a bad sunburn and her doctor sent her home.
Lauren was in such excruciating pain, her parents removed the bandages and discovered first, second and third degree burns over more than half of her face.
“I asked if my eyebrow was still there and she said that was gonna be the least of my problems,” said Lauren.
With both eyes swollen shut and blisters hanging from her face, the Wargos rushed Lauren to MetroHealth Medical Center’s burn unit where she endured a painful scraping and cleansing procedure.
The treatment was necessary three times a day for several weeks to promote healing.
“They had to remove the dead tissue. I had charred skin on my face,” said Lauren. ”The burn center recommended that I didn’t look at my face right away. My parents covered up all of the mirrors in our house.”
Lauren had always been an outgoing and athletic young girl.
Heavily medicated and suffering tremendous pain, she now worried that she wouldn’t have the same life.
“Of course I cried,” said Lauren, “I was pretty beat up.”
According to the FDA, surgical fires occur an estimated 550 to 650 times each year.
Injuries can range from minor burns to disfigurement and even death.
“They can be caused by a number of things,” said Dr. Wael Barsoun, chairman of surgical operations at the Cleveland Clinic.
Although Lauren’s injuries did not occur at a Cleveland Clinic facility, Dr. Barsoun said, “It is really heartbreaking when we see an incident. I mean we went into medicine to make patients better.”
Dr. Barsoun said there are three consistent elements in what’s called the fire triangle.
They are oxygen, alcohol and an ignition source like a cautery device, which is an electronic tool used to stop bleeding which can spark.
“It’s a good environment for a fire because you have high levels of oxygen and many folks use alcohol as a disinfectant for the skin to sterilize that’s high in alcohol,” said Dr. Barsoun.
Alcohol can pool on the body or saturate hair and surgical drapery.
Dr. Barsoun said taking a time out can help.
“One of the keys if you are using high alcohol based solutions is to wait at least 3 minutes so that all of the alcohol is evaporated,” he explained.
After nine fires occurred over an 18 month time period at the Cleveland Clinic, the Clinic took a proactive approach and increased training for all surgical personal, and they also stopped using alcohol preps altogether.
“We decreased our fires by 80-percent,” said Dr. Barsoun. “And again when I say fire, it is not always a flame. It can be a spark or smoke from an electrical outlet.”
The Clinic is open and transparent about their fires, although in Ohio they don’t have to report anything by law.
Some states track fires but Ohio does not.
In fact, neither the Ohio Dept. of Health nor the Ohio Hospital Association would even talk about the issue on camera with Fox 8 News Reporter Suzanne Stratford.
“We didn’t find out what happened in my case until it went to trial,” said Lauren.
Lauren sued plastic surgeon Dr. Bryan Michelow, who was operating independently at a local outpatient clinic in Beachwood.
She won a large verdict, but the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals, and Dr. Michelow was granted a new trial.
Attorney Doug Leak represented Dr. Michelow during the appeal.
When asked to comment for this story he said, “Since the case is still pending, while Dr. Michelow is awaiting a new trial, he is not at liberty to discuss the facts of the case at this time.”
But Lauren is extremely vocal about her situation.
She has begun working for the non-profit group SurgicalFire.Org, trying making surgical rooms safer.
In October 2011 the FDA released a safety communication to all health care professionals with detailed information on preventing surgical fires, including something as simple as a taking a time out so that the alcohol can dissipate.
Lauren wants the FDA recommendations implemented at all hospitals.
Dr. Barsoun agrees that health care professionals must start talking about prevention.
“The reality is it’s a complicated problem and it is a high risk environment and we really have to help each other to ensure that these types of problems don’t jeopardize our patients,” Barsoun said.
Lauren is now 25-years-old and still healing from the fire.
Her lovely face is permanently scarred, her left eye doesn’t close all of the way and is prone to infection.
She did graduate from college but admits every day is still a struggle.
“Everybody still wonders am I ever gonna get over this, am I ever gonna be normal again. I guess the answer is no but I’ve come so far since then I’m definitely lucky,” Lauren said.
Although Ohio doesn’t require doctors or hospitals to report surgical fires, patients and other medical personnel can report them to the FDA.