Flash Fire Erupts in Man's Chest Cavity During Open Heart Surgery

surgery medical surgeon stock getty
Medics have described the case of a fire erupting in a man's chest cavity during surgery. Getty

A fire raged through the chest cavity of a man during heart surgery in a rare incident, according to doctors.

Surgeons were performing emergency heart surgery on an unnamed 60-year-old patient, when oxygen escaped from his ruptured lung. The operation took place at Austin Health in Melbourne, Australia.

The man visited the hospital in southeastern Australia, and medics found he had a tear in his aorta—the main artery which takes blood from the heart to the rest of the body. He was diagnosed with what is known as an ascending aortic dissection, and required emergency surgery to fix it.

According to his doctors, the man had previously been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A year before his emergency surgery, the patient had coronary artery bypass grafting. The third leading cause of death linked to disease in the U.S., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a lung disease which can make it difficult for the sufferer to breathe.

After cutting the man open, the surgeons found his right lung was fused to his sternum, or breastbone. Parts of his lung had become dilated or destroyed, which is symptomatic of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These inflated areas are known as bullae.

During the operation, one of the bullae was cut, causing air to rush out. The medics responded by upping the gases used in the operation, including oxygen.

When a spark flashed from an electronic device used to cut away tissue, known as the electrocautery, a surgical pack set alight, causing the flash fire.

The hospital staff were able to put out the fire and continue the surgery without any further hiccups. The patient did not suffer any injuries.

Dr. Ruth Shaylor of Austin Health in Melbourne, who was among the medics to work on the man, said there are only a handful of documented causes of chest cavity fires. Three involved thoracic surgery, while the other three occurred during coronary bypass grafting.

"All have involved the presence of dry surgical packs, electrocautery, increased inspired oxygen concentrations, and patients with COPD or pre-existing lung disease," she said.

Shaylor argued: "This case highlights the continued need for fire training and prevention strategies and quick intervention to prevent injury whenever electrocautery is used in oxygen-enriched environments.

"In particular surgeons and anesthetists need to be aware that fires can occur in the chest cavity if a lung is damaged or there is an air leak for any reason, and that patients with COPD are at increased risk."

The case study was presented at the European Society of Anaesthesiology's meeting Euroanaesthesia.

According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, surgical fires are "rare but serious," with around 550 to 600 happening each year.