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tony clarke

A veteran Lifeways support worker has become a national ambassador and speaker for surgical fires, after being accidentally set on fire during an operation.

For the last decade, Tony Clarke has been a support worker for Lifeways, in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He’s worked in social care for over 45 years, empowering people with learning disabilities.

Yet for the past 30 years, Tony has suffered from a chronic inflammatory skin disease, Hidradenitis Suppurativa. The disease is a painful, long-term skin condition that causes abscesses and scarring on the skin. 

“I've had it since I was young,” says Tony. “I've tried every possible cure. I suffer from it severely.”

In September 2020, Tony underwent surgery to remove infected tissue on one side of his body.

When he entered the operating theatre, Tony’s surgical team first covered part of his body with an alcohol-based solution, to keep the area clean.

Then, when the operation began, the surgeons began cutting off the infected tissue using a diathermy pen, a device that targets electrically-induced heat to stop wounds from bleeding.

Unfolding disaster

Shortly into the surgery, disaster struck: heat from the surgical pen had ignited the alcohol on Tony’s body.

“But because alcohol burns so hot, no fire was seen,” says Tony, recalling an explanation he later received from the hospital. 

“The surgeons were concentrating on the right side of my body. The left side was left burning for about 20 minutes.”

After the surgeons realized what happened, they scrambled to put out the fire. Tony was left to sleep to recover from his burns.

“This is where it starts affecting the rest of my family,” says Tony. “Because normally I'd ring my partner as soon as I come out of theatre - which normally takes about an hour and a half…. but hours later, she hadn't heard anything, so of course, you can imagine what her worry was like.”

‘We set light to you, Mr Clarke’

“The surgeon came over and told me: ‘we set light to you, Mr Clarke.’ At the time I was still under drugs [anaesthetic]. I didn't really understand what was happening and I was all bandaged up. I thought the bandages were from the regular operation.”

As the anaesthetic wore off, Tony realised the extent of the damage to his skin. Around the area that caught fire, Tony’s skin had turned pink and mottled in areas, adding to his existing chronic condition.

For the next four months, Tony travelled back to the hospital every three days, to get his injuries checked and bandages changed.

‘Totally disabled’

During that time, Tony describes himself as ‘totally disabled.’

“I couldn’t even make myself a cup of tea,” he recalls. “It totally disabled me physically, which then affected my mental health.”

To support Tony’s worsening mental health, he undertook a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

During Tony’s lengthy recovery, his managers at Lifeways, Gina Evans and Claire Cooper, made sure to check in with Tony frequently, while giving him space to recover.

“The support that they gave me was brilliant,” says Tony. “It was a case of them saying: ‘don't worry, let us know what's happening, but don't worry.’”

As Tony was struggling with his mental health, he also felt anxious about losing his job with Lifeways.

Tony hadn’t been able to work since the pandemic first started, as had been deemed vulnerable during to his existing health condition.

“Yet from a work point of view, there wasn’t any stress. I remember Gina saying to me, don’t worry about your job.”

The importance of loyalty

For Tony, having a loyal employer is important, due to his own values. “When I go to work or work somewhere, I think you should have loyalty to that place. So it was nice to know that my job was safe.”

Five months after the surgical accident, Tony’s skin had grown back over the burned area, although he was left with heavy scarring.

In total, it took Tony a year to recover from the physical injuries he suffered - and the accompanying emotional scarring.

Ray of light

There was, however, one ray of light from Tony’s traumatic, painful experience.

As a naturally frank, expressive communicator, Tony’s now comfortable to talk in-depth about his experience, with the aim to make sure surgical fires become, in NHS terms, a ‘never event.’

In September this year, Tony, as a patient ambassador for prevention of surgical fires, spoke at a conference held in York by the Association for Perioperative Practice (AFPP).

There, perioperative practitioners from across the country gathered to listen to Tony’s experience.

“I was speaking to lots and lots of different professionals in the medical service and they'd never heard of it [being set on fire during surgery]. It was a rarity for them,” Tony says.

As well as his role as a Lifeways support worker, Tony’s now working with different health agencies, with the aim of stopping preventable surgical burns entirely.

Thankfully, awareness of surgical fires is spreading among the medical community.

In 2019, the Surgical Fires Expert Working Group was established. Last year, the Working Group published a report, which focused on the prevention of surgical fires in the NHS.

Then, in late 2021, the issue of preventing surgical fires in the NHS was debated in a session of parliament.

Tony’s passionate about helping raise awareness. “Hopefully, the word will get out and then, being set on fire during surgery will stop, so nobody else will have to go through it.”

Thank you for sharing your story, Tony!


About Lifeways:

Lifeways is the UK’s largest team of support professionals providing support for adults in the community.

We support adults with diverse and complex needs, including learning disabilities, autism, physical disabilities, acquired brain injuries, and mental health conditions. 

As the supported living sector’s largest team of professionals, Lifeways’ extensive experience and national reach mean we deliver extraordinary support to adults, enabling them to live fulfilling and independent lives in the community. 

Our 11,000 colleagues currently support almost 5,000 individuals who live in our 1,500 supported living and residential services across England, Scotland, and Wales. 

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