John B. Fortune, MD, FACS is the Medical Director of the Vermont Regional Trauma and Burn Center at the UVM Medical Center.

This week, February 6-12, has been designated “Burn Awareness Week.”

As a burn surgeon I can tell you that this is not a celebration.  You see, injuries from burns are serious problems in our country today.  While we have all suffered minor burns from touching the hot stove in the kitchen (yes, I have done that several times myself … and felt pretty stupid about it afterwards), the facts show that serious, life-threatening  burn injury is more prevalent than you might imagine.  Around a half a million people each year need to seek medical assistance for burn injuries, and nearly 40,000 require hospitalization.  The annual death toll from burn injuries is over 4,000, which translates into about one person dying every two hours.

Locally, two Vermonters have died from burn injuries in the past few months alone – what a tragedy.  Burns from open flames such as structure fires and explosions are the most common cause of thermal injury but scald burns come in a close second.  Surprisingly, one of the most common burn injuries that we see at the UVM Medical Center is caused by spilling hot liquid on oneself while cooking a meal in the kitchen.  We can forget that boiling water, bacon grease, and even the drippings from the turkey can be dangerous.  Unfortunately, many of these victims turn out to be children.

So there are two key messages that hopefully will come from “Burn Awareness Week”:  awareness of what we at the UVM Medical Center are doing to help the burn patients of our region and awareness of what you can do to prevent burns.

So, what are we doing?  Annually at the UVM Medical Center, we provide hospital care to more than 50 burn victims.  We see dozens more in our multidisciplinary burn clinic.

  • Like the trauma patient, when a burn victim arrives in our emergency department, a team of dedicated and specially trained professionals assembles to provide the initial care.  Initially, supportive interventions are rapidly administered for life threatening injuries that may include smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, or other blunt injuries that might have occurred along with the burn.
  • Once stabilized, the patient’s burns are carefully examined and classified.  Antibiotic burn dressings are applied and the patient is transferred to special areas in the hospital where burn nurses take over.  Each day, the burn wounds are examined, carefully cleaned, and the dressings are reapplied.  Pain management and nutritional support are emphasized in these early days.
  • If the burns are deep and skin grafting is required, our highly qualified burn surgeons tediously remove the burn tissue and replace it with thin layers of fresh skin taken from the thigh or the back.
  • The occupational and physical therapists are omnipresent to maintain joint mobility and ambulation.
  • The day of discharge is usually a celebration of our burn team’s success as the burn patient continues his or her journey back to a normal lifestyle.
  • In the burn clinic, the same team is available to manage smaller burns that do not require hospitalization.

The second and more important goal of this week is to spread the message of the safety measures that can help avoid burns.  Consider some of these:

  • Turn down the thermostat of your residential water heater to 120°.  Not only might this prevent a scald burn or two but it also saves you a few dollars on your energy bill.
  • Make sure that your house is protected by smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.  There should be one on every floor. Don’t forget to change the batteries when the clock flips forward or backward twice a year for daylight savings time adjustments.
  • Exercise care in lighting pilot lights of your gas or propane appliances.  Make sure that gas flow is off except to the pilot itself
  • Don’t start rubbish fires or bonfires with gasoline.  If you must start a fire, use old newspapers.
  • Emphasize “kitchen safety” around children.  Be mindful of exposed pot handles on the stove.  Make your hot appliances “off limits” for children.  Keep hot liquids away from counter edges.
  • Put a protective screen around fireplaces and wood stoves.  Little hands have a habit of reaching for neat looking fires.

So there you have it – Burn Awareness Week.  The burn team at the UVM Medical Center is proud of what we do and the excellent services we provide for our region.  However, with a little more attention to burn safety around the house and workplace, you could quite possibly put us out of business.  I guess that would be a week to celebrate too!

John B. Fortune, MD, FACS is the Medical Director of the Vermont Regional Trauma and Burn Center at the UVM Medical Center.  He is also a Professor of Surgery at the University of Vermont, and Vice-Chair for Education in the Department of Surgery.

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