It’s something most pregnant women wouldn’t even think to worry about: having your stomach catch on fire during a caesarean. But that’s the nightmare one American woman faced when giving birth to her daughter in a New York hospital two years ago.
And this week, the mum of two failed to win a negligence suit against the obstetrician she felt was partly responsible for the fire.
On March 12 2010, Kira Reed was admitted to Crouse Hospital to give birth to her second child via caesearean. She’d already been given a local anesthetic and her obstetrician, Dr Stephen Brown, had made the incision when Reed noticed an odd smell.
“It did not smell like anything recognisable,” Reed told her local newspaper in Syracuse, NY.
Reed says that when she told the medical staff that it smelled like something was burning, she was reassured nothing was wrong. Then her mother, who was beside her, said she could see smoke.
This should not have happened. The lady came in to have a baby. She did not come in to have third degree burns
That’s when Dr Brown saw a flame on her left side, and patted it out with his hand.
“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s been a little fire,” Dr Brown was reported to say.
Reed went on to give birth to a healthy baby girl she named Rayna, but was left with a painful third-degree burn that measured 17cm by 12cm on her side. A plastic surgeon who later treated the injury described the burn as similar to those he’d seen on napalm victims.
It's thought that the fire had started when Dr Brown began using an electrical cauterising tool after the area had been cleaned with the alcohol-based antiseptic DuraPrep.
A month earlier DuraPrep had sent warnings to hospitals, letting them know that allowing the fluid to soak into patients’ hospital gowns, or letting it pool on or around the patient, could pose a fire risk. The anaesthesiologist later testified that Reed’s gown had been wet with what could have only been the antiseptic liquid.
But staff members said they hadn’t been trained in preventing DuraPrep fires.
“Before this, I didn’t realise fire was even an issue with DuraPrep,” one of the nurses said in court.
Reed, a 42-year-old business professor, sued the hospital and Dr Brown for malpractice. The hospital took full responsibility, but didn’t admit negligence.
“The hospital was horrified,” a spokesperson said. “This should not have happened. The lady came in to have a baby. She did not come in to have third degree burns on her lower abdomen.”
Reed settled with the hospital for an undisclosed amount a few months ago, but continued with a case against her obstetrician because, she said, “The hospital’s settlement amount represented a fair, 50 per cent responsibility, and I thought the doctor was 50 per cent responsible”.
In court, Dr Brown denied seeing any evidence that the DuraPrep had been used incorrectly. He claimed that he wasn’t at fault as he hadn’t been responsible for preparing Reed for surgery.
After consideration, the jury ruled in favour of Dr Brown.
According to Mark Bruley, an expert in surgical fires, such events in the US are rare - there are 400-600 incidents in the 50 million or so surgeries that take place each year. Only around 4 per cent of those involve skin preparation solutions, as most are caused by anaesthetic gases catching fire.
A 2011 report by by The Victorian Surgical Consultative Council stated that "reports of fire in Australian hospitals are sporadic", with around 40 per year expected in Australia and New Zealand.