Local News

Duke Hospital Officials Investigate Incident That Injured Newborn

Posted June 5, 2003 5:44 a.m. EDT

— An ailing newborn suffered first-, second- and third-degree burns on 5 percent of its body when a fire erupted during a medical procedure at Duke Hospital's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

The injuries were not life-threatening, hospital officials said. The baby had been suffering from an upper-respiratory illness, hospital spokesman Richard Puff said.

Hospital officials would not identify the baby or disclose its condition at the request of the family.

The fire started at 1 p.m. Monday as a five-person medical team began performing a procedure called extracorporal membrane oxygenation treatment, or ECMO. The team was supposed to attach a series of tubes to the baby that would feed into a machine designed to breathe for it and pump its blood.

Oxygen surrounds babies throughout the procedure while doctors use a heated cauterizing tool to stanch bleeding.

A hospital spokesman said paper draped over the baby, then fabric bedding and a blanket ignited shortly after the procedure began Monday. The fire was extinguished with sterile water within seconds, the spokesman said.

The hospital's initial investigation has not shown what caused the fire, said Dr. William Fulkerson, chief executive officer at Duke Hospital. Hospital investigators are still testing patient monitors, and the cauterizing tool had not malfunctioned before, he said.

Dr. John Faulkner said the operating team at Duke somehow failed to recognize the potential danger.

"These are tragedies, preventable tragedies," he said.

Faulkner's wife, Joan, was almost killed when her outpatient surgery caught fire, severely burning her upper body.

"I was burned on my ears, my face, my neck and my chest," she said.

Faulkner said information from his wife's accident still has not been released by her hospital. He claims if it had been made public right way, it may have helped prevent the fire at Duke.

Duke doctors have performed the procedure hundreds of times since 1990, Fulkerson said. ECMO can last for days to weeks.

Hospital staff immediately notified the baby's family after the fire, officials said. On Wednesday, the hospital notified state and federal regulators about the incident.

Duke Hospital has been under added scrutiny since the Feb. 22 death of 17-year-old Jesica Santillan, who received a heart-lung transplant with organs that did not match her blood type. State inspectors, acting on behalf of federal Medicaid and Medicare programs, initiated an inquiry into the hospital's transplant programs.

"We take care of the sickest people here," Fulkerson said Wednesday. "We do the most complex procedures. We have the most dedicated staff. If there's something to learn from this, we'll learn it, and we'll teach everybody else, too."