By Fran Moore, PT
The topic of fire safety and oxygen use came up at this week’s Hospice Team Meeting. Since many hospice patients are new to oxygen, I am compelled to share a story of a patient that I treated many, many years ago. I’ll call her Mary, since I can’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget what happened.
Mary was new to oxygen, and I was seeing her in her home for physical therapy to try to build up her endurance and improve her safety as she adjusted to walking around her house tethered to an oxygen concentrator by a very long tube.
As a physical therapist, I was well versed in oxygen and fire safety, and as a caregiver for my mother who was on oxygen at the time, I was able to troubleshoot problems that wouldn’t happen every day. Once again, I learned that I haven’t seen everything.
Mary was alone in her home, working in her kitchen. She didn’t have a gas stove, and she was confident in her ability to boil a pot of potatoes on her electric stove while she was attached to her oxygen. In fact the burner was turned off, and the potatoes were cooling when it happened.
As Mary stood at the sink next to the stove washing dishes, she suddenly saw the flames. She looked down and quickly realized that her tubing was no longer attached to the oxygen source! Unbeknownst to Mary, the plastic tubing had been touching the still-hot pot on the stove, and the plastic quickly ignited. The steady flow of oxygen pumping out of the concentrator fed the flames as the plastic cannula burned.
Fortunately, Mary was able to act quickly. She turned off the oxygen concentrator, grabbed her phone, and called the fire department. She stood just outside her front door on that icy winter day and waited for them to arrive. The fire was extinguished before it did major damage to her home, and, in fact, I had the opportunity to see what it looked like on my subsequent visit.
I’ll never forget that jagged brown line as it crossed her tiny kitchen and licked up at her wooden cabinets. Mary and I learned the hard way that the plastic tubing was highly flammable when it came in contact with a heat source, and we saw first-hand how the oxygen feeds the flames.
When I tell this story, it always grabs attention, and jars us into the realization that, although oxygen itself isn’t flammable, the devices that deliver the oxygen certainly are. The oxygen tubing may come in contact with a heat source such as an electric heating element, an appliance, or even a light bulb as we move around and perform our daily routines. Mary’s story made me realize how quickly a fire can start and how easily an oxygen source can feed the flames.
During these cold, dark months of winter, we tend to use extra sources of heat and light for comfort. When oxygen is in the home, it is extra important to have an emergency preparedness plan.
- Contact the local fire department and utility company to alert them that a resident in the home is on oxygen.
- Read the safety instructions that come with the oxygen delivery.
- Ask your care provider or hospice nurse if you have any questions about oxygen use or safety.
All of us receive regular training about fire safety and emergency preparedness, and it is our job to be sure that our patients and families are educated about safety first.