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Man adds doctors to UMC operating room fire lawsuit

JOYESHA CHESNICK Citizen Staff Writer

A University Medical Center patient burned in a freak operating room fire has added the two doctors involved with his surgery and their employer to his suit against the hospital.

In a complaint filed yesterday, lawyers for Wallace Beene, 74, said UMC has taken the position that neurosurgeon Joel MacDonald, anesthesiologist J. Scott Polson and University Physicians Inc. must be included in the suit.

Beene, a former University of Arizona journalism faculty member and newspaper reporter, was burned after an electrocautery device used to stop bleeding caught fire during his July 23, 1998, brain surgery.

”We had originally just sued University Medical Center,” said Steven Copple, who with Richard Grand is representing the Beene family.

”They said, ‘We did nothing wrong. If you want to continue with the lawsuit, you ought to be naming these doctors because they were in control of what was going on.’ ”

UMC spokesman George Humphrey said the hospital ”doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.”

Asked why UMC would insist the doctors be named in the suit, Humphrey could not confirm or deny that is what happened.

”I’m not even sure what that means,” he said.

Attempts to reach MacDonald and Polson through UMC were unsuccessful, and messages left at their offices yesterday after business hours were not returned.

The complaint also claims UMC staff has refused to answer questions concerning what caused the fire and who was responsible.

”They were instructed by University Physicians and University Medical Center not to answer my questions,” Copple said. ”They were instructed not to ask anybody at University Medical Center how and why it happened and not to discuss it with anybody.”

Copple said that is a direct contradiction of UMC’s promise shortly after the fire to ”re-create the exact circumstances of the event, so we can make sure nothing like this happens again, here or anywhere else.”

Beene was burned on his face and upper body, forcing him to breathe on a ventilator for weeks while in intensive care.

He sustained only minor facial scarring from the fire. The Beene family filed a malpractice suit against UMC in September, claiming smoke inhalation damaged his lungs, forcing him onto a ventilator and then an oxygen machine.

In addition, Beene suffers significant body swelling due to heart problems that have worsened since the fire, his wife said in October.

Copple said that despite UMC’s closed-mouthed stance, he was able to determine some facts about the fire during court proceedings.

”It is crystal clear from the events that DuraPrep was the fuel that exploded,” he said. ”It exploded because it was improperly applied, and directions were not followed.”

DuraPrep is a highly flammable antiseptic made by 3M.

Copple said that three weeks before the fire, 3M sent a letter to UMC and University Physicians, warning about DuraPrep’s high fire risk and offering to provide training on its proper use.

He said neither UMC nor University Physicians did anything about the letter initially, but pulled the antiseptic from inventory within two hours after Beene’s surgery.

”It should not have been used for head and neck surgery,” Copple said. ”That should have been clear.”

Joyesha Chesnick’s e-mail: jchesnic@tucsoncitizen.com

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