Treatment for Partial Thickness Burns

Robin Asks:

I have a question regarding burn care. The main character in my novel is burned in a house fire and receives second degree burns to his back. How long would the wound be oozing? If it’s second degree burns, would he require skin grafts? What is the general treatment for second degree burns? What pain medications would be ordered?

Jordyn Says:

With burns to the back, it would really depend on what percentage of his back is burned. Burns are always calculated in percentages so it’s hard to know exactly what the treatment would be without knowing that number.

However, in general . . . second degree burns are now called partial thickness burns in medical terminology. Usually, to qualify as a partial thickness burn, the skin is reddened with blistered areas. These will probably ooze quite a bit for a few days.

Current treatment is to slather the burned area with triple antibiotic ointment, generally leaving blisters intact. After the ointment is in place, the burn is covered with something that won’t stick to the leaking fluid (called serous or serosanguinous fluid) like non-stick gauze pads and then roller gauze is applied around. This is why not knowing the burn size is problematic.

If the burn is large, covering most of the back, then the torso may need to wrapped to keep the non-adhesive barrier/dressing in place. The goal is to leave blisters intact. Blisters can be popped if they are problematic in size but the skin may be left over top because it provides a protective barrier. Exposed raw skin is the most painful. Blisters are also left intact because they provide a barrier against infection.

These dressings would likely be done until the skin heals which can take up to two weeks. As far as home pain medications, once the wound is covered it usually decreases the pain dramatically because the raw, exposed nerve endings aren’t coming in to contact with air anymore. These days, the patient might be sent home with a few doses of Lortab or Percocet (three days is becoming more common) with the patient instructed to take Ibuprofen on a schedule as well for pain control. I don’t think this is a situation where skin grafting would be required.

Hope this helped and best of luck with your novel!

This Is US: Jack’s Needless Death

This television episode caused more people to reach out to me over any other. This Is Us has been building up to Jack’s death for eighteen months. It needed to be big. It needed to be dramatic. Can you tell I’ve been watching the show? It was really none of those and medically— well, just weird to be honest.

If you haven’t watched the episode then don’t read this post because it will reveal his cause of death . . . like right now.

Jack’s ultimate demise? A heart attack called the widow maker caused by the stress of the fire.

Jack is in intense smoke and heat for several minutes. He emerges and is first checked by EMS. He is being given oxygen and a dressing to his arm for “2nd degree burns”. The EMS person says she can’t treat the burn and he is seemingly refusing transport, but she does encourage him to be seen. Also, giving oxygen is correct, but it is not the right type of mask. A note on burns. Burns will evolve over the next several days so you don’t really know how severe a burn will be for a while.

Jack does eventually go to the hospital to get his burns checked. The doctor is initially giving him instructions on burn care.  The doctor says, “I’d like your heart rate to come down.” and glances at the monitor— which doesn’t have any readings on it. No waveforms. No numbers. He then says, “There’s soot in your airway so we’ll have to run some tests. The swelling is minor.”

That’s about it. The doctor tells Jack he basically dodged a bullet and seems none too concerned about his potential airway damage.

Just as I mentioned above, airway burns from smoke inhalation are similar to skin burns in that they evolve over time. Smoke inhalation and the potential for upper airway swelling is taken very seriously. There is a nice overview here. At the very least, there should be discussion of admitting Jack to the hospital. As quoted from the article, “Studies have shown that initial evaluation is not a good predictor of the airway obstruction that may ensue later secondary to rapidly progressing edema.” If there is concern about significant injury to the airway then the patient is electively intubated until the airway injury heals. It’s VERY difficult to intubate someone with a lot of airway swelling.

Shortly after this consultation, Rebecca decides to make a phone call and get a candy bar from the vending machine. In that, perhaps under two-three minutes passage of time, Jack codes and dies. Even though she is just outside the ER nurses station, she never hears a code being called. Doesn’t see the commotion.

The doctor approaches her and says, “One of complications of smoke inhalation is that it puts a terrible stress on the lungs and therefore the heart. Your husband went into cardiac arrest. It was catastrophic and I’m afraid we lost him . . . Mrs. Pearson, your husband has died.”

After a few exchanges she goes to Jack’s room where there is a spotlight shining on his chest with a cursory ambu bag at the head of his bead . . . but no other equipment. I’m telling you in two minutes, a code has barely just begun and is never called so hastily . . . like ever. Later, explaining the event to Miguel, Rebecca says he had a widow maker’s heart attack.

The widow maker is a real term for a heart attack. It generally refers to occlusion of the left main coronary artery that feeds the left side of the heart. It is the same heart attack celebrity trainer Bob Harper had and survived. The reason the widow maker can be so devastating is that the left ventricle is the largest, strongest pumping chamber. If it dies . . . well, you’re hosed.

There would be no realistic way the doctors would know it was specifically this kind of heart attack as shown in the episode without an autopsy. Presumably, Jack went into one of the lethal heart rhythms, v-tach or v-fib, at the time of his code. In the time frame given on the show, the medical team would have barely started CPR and given the first line treatment which is electricity. A 12-lead ECG can be a strong diagnostic tool for this type of heart attack, but they never did one. Had they done that early on, they probably would have seen the changes.

Also, he would likely have some signs and symptoms. Chest pain. Nausea. Left arm pain. Sweating. Demonstrating these might make the scenario seem more believable. Having Rebecca witness the code would have been more dramatic.

Also, it would make more sense that he would suffer this cardiac event while he is actually under duress— such as during the rescue of the children and the dog.

The only way to truly know that this is the type of heart attack Jack suffered as presented in the show would be to conduct an autopsy.

This Is Us— thanks for killing off a beloved character in a totally lame way— at least from a medical standpoint.

Care of the Burn Patient

Linda Asks:

In my middle grade novel my main character’s dad was a fireman in NY.
He was present during the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.
He was burned severely and is in the hospital – near death.

My main character remembers his last conversation with his Dad in the hospital right before he dies.

The dad is hooked up to all kinds of beeping machines and is wrapped in white gauze.
After he talks to his son for the final time, he pushes a button for more morphine.

Questions:

Do they still wrap burn patients in gauze?
Is morphine used on severely burned people?

Jordyn Says:

From the point of view of your character– yes, burns are wrapped in gauze. They are specialized dressings, but a character aged 10-13 could perceive it as gauze only.

Yes, morphine is still used for pain.

My only concern is this character having a conversation with his dad. You don’t describe the nature of how he was burned, but a severely burned patient, particularly one close to death, is likely on a breathing machine and, therefore, unable to speak to his son.

You could change the scene to be that he’s so sick that they are getting ready to intubate the character’s father, and the medical team gives them a few moments to talk before they put the father on the breathing machine. He could still die quickly after from his injuries.

Author Question: Treatment of the Burn Patient

Jennie Asks:

What happens when someone gets burned? What do the EMT’s do on the scene? The story line involves the explosion of a crosswired electrical box.  Two individuals are burned.

First, the man who threw the switch is thrown onto the floor and sparks are showering down on him and his clothes.  He is pinned beneath a shelf that he knocked over.  The second man takes his jacket and tries to put out the flames while others pull the shelf off the man on the floor.  The second man’s arm and hand are burned trying to put out the fire, and keep the sparks from falling on the man on the floor.

I have the paramedics taking the first man to the hospital. I describe very little about his condition. However, the hero is attended by the heroine who is an EMT. His burns are secondary. Would he have to go to the hospital?  Get a tetanus shot if he needs one?

Jordyn Says:

The first distinction to make is that there are several different types of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers and their level of responsibility to this patient will be different. An emergency medical technician (EMT) generally provides basic first aid, CPR, can administer oxygen and can assist the patient in giving some of their own medications (like an asthma inhaler or nitroglycerin tablets.) A paramedic does more advanced medical procedures and gives drugs. The level of your provider will need to be clear in the medical care they can provide.

For EMT’s, in general, burn care is as follows:

1. Remove clothing from the burn that is non-adherent.

2. Remove any constricting items. For instance, if the burn is on the ring finger, you would try and take the ring off.

3. Cover burn with a cool, wet, clean dressing. This will help control pain.

If you have a paramedic responding— it is possible that an IV could be started and the patient could get an IV narcotic for pain (something like morphine or fentanyl.)

If the character is burned by the electrical current, this poses a whole new set of problems. I get the feeling he is burned by the electricity because you mention that he has been thrown back. Electrical burns typically have an entrance and an exit wound like the hand and foot. The electricity enters one part but has to exit somewhere.

The other problem with electrical burns is that your heart pumps based on an electrical conduction system. An electrical burn can injure the electrical conduction system of the heart and we will look very closely at whether or not the heart sustained injury. This could be evaluated initially by a 12-Lead ECG and lab work that measures muscle breakdown specific to the heart. The issue with electrical burns is that the damage is often unseen because the electricity will injure you internally but we can’t see it externally except and the entrance and exit sites.

The other thought was the extent of your patient’s burns and this would make a difference in their medical care. Burns are generally calculated based on the percentage of skin that is affected. You can find examples of these tables by clicking this link. Adults and kids are calculated differently.

Burns <15% body surface area (BSA) would get cool, moist compresses. However, burns > 15% would get dry, sterile dressings. The reason for this is that burn patients have lost their skin integrity. Your skin helps your body maintain its temperature. Some consider it the largest organ in the body. When you burn >15% and apply cool, wet dressings, this can pull enough heat away from the patient to cause them to become hypothermic. We actually have to help burn patients maintain their body temperature by cranking up the heat in the room or using other warming techniques.

Your patient will have to go to the hospital. Initial ED treatment would be IV placement, fluid resuscitation (there is a formula we use for this and is dependent on the burn percentage), pain medication (like morphine), and likely consulting with a burn center to help determine his course of treatment. Tetanus shot would be updated if he hasn’t had one in the last five years.

Did you know that paramedic protocols are relatively easy to find online? For instance, this link shows all of the Denver Metro Prehospital Protocols. Referencing these will be one of the best sources for researching what type of prehospital care your character would receive for their given ailment.

***This content originally posted December 10, 2010.***