Woman chose not to file lawsuit after Operating Room fire

Virginia Hinkley went to Sutter Coast Hospital for surgery to remove skin cancer on her forehead and woke up in the intensive care unit.

There was an accident, the doctors told her. A fire. Second-degree burns covered Hinkley's chin, surrounded her mouth, reached the apples of her cheeks and the tip of her nose. Yet she remained cheerful. Even cracked jokes.

"I said, 'You know I only came in here to have skin cancer removed and you guys gave me a face peel,'" she said. "They burned all my wrinkles off."

Two years later the only traces of Hinkley's injuries are slightly pinker cheeks and an almost total absence of wrinkles near her mouth and on her chin. Despite the incident, Hinkley, who will turn 90 next month, said the hospital's doctors and staff weren't at fault, made her comfortable and took very good care of her.

Hinkley met with a lawyer following the incident, but said she decided against filing a malpractice lawsuit. The doctor was just doing his job, she said.

"I dropped it," Hinkley said. "I didn't want the doctors or nurses put to any trouble. I have no animosity against the hospital. The nurses treated me wonderful."

But she said she still didn't know exactly what happened until news of the hospital receiving a fine in connection with the incident appeared in the Triplicate last month.

Sutter Coast Hospital was given a $10,000 administrative penalty from the California Department of Public Health in connection with the oxygen mask fire that resulted in Hinkley's two-day stay in intensive care. The hospital was one of 10 to receive administrative penalties for noncompliance with licensing requirements that have caused or were likely to cause serious injury or death to patients, state health officials announced on Dec. 20. It was Sutter Coast's first administrative penalty.

According to a CDPH report, which doesn't identify Hinkley, doctors were operating on her when the surgery drapes around her head and the oxygen mask on her face ignited. The fire was started by a high flow of oxygen through the face mask and an electrical cautery device used to coagulate wound tissue on the forehead, the report said.

Operating room staff removed the surgery drapes and oxygen mask and extinguished the fire with water, according to the report. The mask was described as having five openings and 14 feet of tubing.

Sutter Coast Hospital immediately self-reported the incident and cooperated with the state's investigation,spokeswoman Beth Liles said in December. The hospital also developed and submitted a corrective action plan that includes improved training, documentation and accountability to prevent such an incident from happening again.

The hospital has a new policy entitled Fire Prevention and Management in an Oxygen Enriched Atmosphere, according to CDPH's report. Under this policy, surgical staff must use moistened towels, sponges and drapes for all head and neck patients. The policy also requires surgical staff to stop the use of oxygen one minute before using the cautery device.

Following the two days she spent in the ICU, the hospital put Hinkley in a private room. Hinkley said the hospital staff made sure she was free of pain. The operating room nurse visited her every morning and evening during her stay.

"You never saw a better sport in your life," said Hinkley's neighbor, Betty Belitz, who visited her in the hospital. "She never complained once."

Two years after the fire, Hinkley says her lips still give her problems. They are scarred and peel constantly, she said. She smears Vaseline on them to keep them from chapping. But still, Hinkley says, she's glad to be alive.

She survived cervical cancer in 1958 and breast cancer in 1995. She jokes that the list of surgeries she's had can fill a whole page. Hinkley, who drove an RV into Crescent City with her husband in 1991 and never left, has three kids, eight grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

"If it wasn't for that OR crew, I wouldn't be here talking to you," she said. "The good Lord's got me here for a reason."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.