Man, 60, caught FIRE during open heart surgery

Man, 60, caught FIRE during open heart surgery when dry swabs ignited because a hot electrical tool sparked while oxygen was leaking out of his lung

  • The patient in Melbourne, Australia, was not harmed during the incident
  • Quick-thinking staff managed to put out the fire and carry on with the operation
  • Oxygen is not flammable but makes it easier for other things to catch alight

A man caught fire during an operation to repair his heart, surgeons revealed in a bizarre case study.

Large amounts of oxygen and anaesthetic leaked out through a hole in the patient’s lung and, when one of the surgeon’s tools sparked, a fire broke out.

The doctors in Australia managed to put the fire out immediately and carry on with the operation, with the patient recovering unscathed from the incident.

The team who revealed the freak accident said it’s not even the first time it has happened and medics should be trained what to do in the event of a surgical fire.

As the surgical team increased how much oxygen was being pumped through the man’s anaesthetic mask, the concentration of the gas in the air around him rose as it leaked out of his lung, helping to fuel a fire when a surgical device sparked (stock image)

Medics at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, revealed how the chest of their 60-year-old unidentified patient burst into flames.

While surgeons were beginning an operation to repair a tear in the man’s aorta – the main artery out of the heart – they punctured one of his lungs by accident.

The man had suffered from lung disease in the past and his right lung was swollen and stuck to his rib cage, which the surgeons had to break to get to his heart.

When they punctured the lung while doing this, air began to escape rapidly from the man’s lung.

To keep him breathing, the team increased the amount of oxygen being pumped through the patient’s face mask but soon smelled the anaesthetic leaking out of his chest and into the room.

Although oxygen itself isn’t flammable, it helps other things to burn and fuels fire, lowering the temperature needed to start a blaze.


Dr Ruth Shaylor, at Austin Health in Melbourne, Australia, revealed the man had ‘a flash fire in his chest cavity’ during emergency heart surgery.

The patient was having an operation to repair a tear in his aorta – the main artery out of the heart – and needed his rib cage cracked open so surgeons could access his heart.

As the team broke through his breastbone they punctured his lung by accident, so pumped up the amount of oxygen going into his lungs – increasing the amount which was leaking out.

High levels of oxygen make things around them more flammable, although the gas itself doesn’t catch fire.

The temperature needed for something to catch fire is lower when there’s more oxygen in the air.

A surgical pack – understood to be cotton swabs and gauze – on the man’s chest then caught alight when a hot tool used to cauterise flesh sparked onto it. 

Then the surgeon’s cauterising tool, which is used to close wounds by burning flesh, sparked and set fire to dry swabs in the man’s chest.

Quick-thinking staff managed to put the fire out straight away without injuring the man, and the rest of the operation went off without a hitch.

Dr Ruth Shaylor, who revealed the tale at a conference, said it was important that staff understood how oxygen in operating rooms could fuel fires.

‘There are only a few documented cases of chest cavity fires – three involving thoracic surgery and three involving coronary bypass grafting,’ she said.

‘All have involved the presence of dry surgical packs, electrocautery, increased… oxygen concentrations, and patients with COPD or pre-existing lung disease.’

The operation took place in August 2018 and Dr Shaylor revealed what had happened at the annual meeting of the European Society of Anaesthesiology in Vienna.

She added: ‘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 anaesthetists 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.’

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