- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

A 60-year-old Stafford woman who was badly burned in a freak flash fire during surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital has filed a $5 million lawsuit against the doctors and the hospital.

The lawsuit, filed in Alexandria circuit court, states Rita Talbert was undergoing thyroid surgery two years ago at the nonprofit hospital when her face caught fire during the procedure.

Mrs. Talbert received second- and third-degree burns to her face, neck and chest, according to the lawsuit filed last month.

Mrs. Talbert’s attorney, Kenneth M. Berman, says his client was left “badly disfigured” and underwent numerous reconstructive surgeries.

The lawsuit names as defendants a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and other hospital staff as well as Inova Alexandria. A spokesman for Inova did not respond yesterday to questions about the lawsuit.

In court papers, Inova and the anesthesiologist have denied liability.

Mr. Berman yesterday said the incident was preventable, but that it’s not exactly clear what sparked the fire.

In medical records obtained by Mr. Berman, the surgeon operating during the procedure recounted the incident, saying “a flash” occurred and “the fire was put out within seconds.”

“A flash burn developed in the operating room I assume due to pooling of oxygen under the mask, which came under the drapes and was ignited by electocautery,” the surgical note states.

Mr. Berman said his client recently underwent a sixth reconstructive surgery and likely will have to have at least another procedure.

“It’s something that you think would never happen,” he said. “But it happens more frequently that you’d think. It’s also something that is close to if not 100 percent preventable if the right measures are taken.”

It’s not the first time a surgical fire has prompted a lawsuit in the region in recent years.

Cathy Lake of Frederick started a Web site — www.surgicalfire.org — after her mother, Catherine Reuter, was burned during a surgery in 2002 at Washington Hospital Center. The hospital has denied the accusations. The case was settled out of court.

The case involved questions over whether surgeons failed to let dry a surgical preparation solution before it was ignited by a spark from an electrosurgical device.

In 2003, Miss Lake said, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations issued a bulletin to raise awareness about surgical fires, saying there are an estimated 100 incidents a year. “An oxygen-enriched atmosphere” was a contributing factor in most of the fires.

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