An Australian hospital is being sued by a former nurse who three years ago watched as an elderly patient’s face caught fire, leaving her with “charred black” skin.

Marilyn Espinola was working at Sunshine Hospital in St Albans, northwest of Melbourne, when the traumatic incident unfolded on March 2, 2020, during a bilateral temporal arterial biopsy – a procedure to remove a section of an artery for testing.

Speaking exclusively with news.com.au, Ms Espinola described the frantic moment the surgeon began shouting, “fire!”, and the distressing moments that followed as she desperately tried to extinguish the flames.

“I just heard ‘fire, fire’ … I couldn’t see any but then he tapped the patient’s face and I saw fire,” Ms Espinola said.

The next thing she saw were flaming garments, that had moments earlier covered the patient, being tossed to the floor of the room in what looked like “a rainbow of fire”.

“I followed the flame and I stomped on it. It was like a dancing fire up to my knees,” she recalled.

Ms Espinola described hysteric scenes of shouting and screaming, as the patient cried out in pain and medical staff told her “help is coming, calm down”.

“Everyone was screaming to turn the oxygen off … at that point I just thought, we’re going to die,” she said.

“The fire was on my foot and the oxygen was on next to me. I thought we were all going to explode and die. That’s when I saw my life flash before my eyes.

“I saw myself in pieces everywhere, like I had exploded into smithereens.”

In the chaos, she managed to put out the fire but couldn’t understand why no help had arrived. She later speculated it was an issue with the emergency button, which only rang twice and could have been mistaken as an accident.

“The patient was writhing in pain and screaming,” she recalled, describing how the woman partially fell from the bed before the top half of her body was caught by the anaesthetist.

“Her face was just charred black, and the smell …” Ms Espinola said.

When rushing out of the room to get water, Ms Espinola fell and injured her ankle, but didn’t register the severity of the damage until later once the adrenaline had worn off.

Her injury, she has claimed, was not handled properly by her employer in the aftermath of the incident, nor was it included in WorkSafe Victoria’s initial investigation, leaving her to feel the hospital failed in its duty of care.

It wasn’t until 18 months later, she said, that her injury was reported to WorkSafe, despite her having submitted multiple work cover claim forms.

Ms Espinola was paid for the time she couldn’t work, but it was under the hospital’s “injury assist leave”, which she claimed she was asked to pay back once a separate “work cover” claim had been approved.

She had only become eligible for work cover because 18 months after the incident, her injury was reported to WorkSafe.

“It wasn’t until 18 months later that the management had decided to put me on work cover and that’s when I learned about my rights as an injured worker, and what I was denied from day one. I want them to give their employees the proper duty of care they deserve,” she said.

She believes the delay in her being classified as an injured worker to WorkSafe meant a proper investigation wasn’t conducted and contributed to the hospital “not admitting to negligence in their part”.

“I would actually like them to stretch out the investigation, that’s what is very hurtful for me, that there is no investigation done and that they seem to have swept it under the rug, the whole incident,” Ms Epinola said.

She claimed a hospital report she sighted blamed the incident on a “machine fault” which she felt failed to acknowledge a variety of other elements.

The initial WorkSafe Victoria report, obtained under the Freedom of Information act, stated the fire was caused by oxygen that leaked from the patient’s “hudson” mask and pooled under her garments.

A probe being used to remove lesions from the patient’s face and neck ignited her mask and skin, causing burns to her face, hands and airway, the report said.

The patient was transferred to the Alfred Hospital’s burns unit after the incident, and required multiple surgeries to her face, neck, jaw and one of her hands.

Following the harrowing ordeal, Ms Espinola was diagnosed with PTSD and major depression, and has been experiencing panic attacks three to four times a week.

Despite having made several attempts since the incident to return to work, she has been unable to recover from the trauma and has essentially been left housebound and reliant on her husband, who retired in June last year to care for her.

“I cannot be alone anywhere, I’m only safe here at home. I don’t drive anymore because triggers are everywhere. I get triggered every day just by watching TV and everything,” she said.

Shine Lawyers is seeking compensation on her behalf.

“Staff at Sunshine Hospital ought to have known this type of medical procedure carries a higher than usual risk of surgical fire,” Erin Jobling, Solicitor at Shine Lawyers, told news.com.au.

“The use of supplemental oxygen in close proximity to electrocautery equipment, combined with the configuration of surgical drapes created an elevated fire hazard that could have been prevented.

“The hospital ought to have measures in place to identify the fire risk as well as training to ensure staff can prevent the risk from materialising.

“As a result of witnessing this incident, our client is unable to return to her career as a nurse, and her trauma symptoms continue to impact on her daily life.

“We are seeking compensation on her behalf for her past and future loss of income, as well as her pain and suffering.”

Western Health — which runs Sunshine Hospital — was contacted for comment but said it is unable to comment as it is a “confidential matter and is the subject of legal proceedings”.

Keep the conversation going, email brooke.rolfe@news.com.au



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