Usually, when a human being suffers from an illness, there is anticipation of recovery as well as complication. But a burn accident is sudden, the damage to the tissues of the body are permanent and the individual often becomes an outcast — depressed and wanting to die.
Injuries from electricity have been reported for almost 300 years. The first reported death occurred in 1879, when a carpenter in France inadvertently contacted a 250 KV, AC generator. Approximately, 1,000 deaths occur a year due to electricity in the U.S. As there is no national burn registry yet in India, most of the Indian statistics available are from various individual burn centres in different States.
In the burn unit of the Kanchi Kamakoti CHILDS Trust Hospital in Chennai, we have seen 853 paediatric burns in the last 10 years of whom 26 cases were children between 0-18 years, who came with electrical burn injuries. One child of five years sustained it during a lighting which is very rare.
Approximately, one-third of all electrical traumas are mostly high voltage injuries and job related and 50% of these injuries resulted from power line contact.
Electrical burn can be classified into six categories and any combination could occur. They are:
Low voltage-burn: It is produced by contact with power sources of 500 volts or less. Body can be resistant up to 400 volts or less.
High voltage burn: This is very severe as the victim makes direct contact with high voltage supply and the damage runs its course throughout the body.
Arc burn: Here, no contact is required with the body, but electrical energy is passed from high resistance to low resistance area. The electricity ionizes air particles to complete the circuit and burn can throw the victim far away.
Flash burn: This occurs when electrics are passed over the skin.
Flame burn: Associated with flash and arc burn.
Oval burn: Caused by lifting or sucking electrical rods, occurs commonly in children.
Electrical accidents occur due to carelessness on the part of the victim and lack of maintenance of the system either in one’s own house or outside.
I would just like to bring the cases which cannot be erased from the mind. A small servant boy was told by the house owner to retrieve a kite from a tall tree for his son on a wet November morning. Looking forward to the gift that he would get, the boy climbed the tree. Touched a live wire hanging on the tree, fell down with the wound of entry in the forearm and the wound of exit in the opposite hand. He was brought in a stage of shock and we resuscitated him only to realise that both his upper limbs were carved due to the current. Bilateral amputation was done and the child survived. To humiliate our treatment, the mother — a havenot — refused to take back the kid. I went from place to place, requesting for help, because this child of 4 ½ needed a helper to look after.
Who are those unseen, unheard kind souls who come forward for help? There are many in India but all are behind the scenes. A woman from Chennai, who had no children of her own or husband, took the child for looking after. I discharged the child from the hospital after the formalities. Often, I used to think of him. Time flew by; after 15 years, one day I got a Diwali greetings card with a nice painting. Inside he had written — “Today I am an artist in Mumbai — foot and mouth painter, just remembered you”-Dilli. I was overwhelmed.
A lady walked in on a Friday morning, her entire scalp bleeding and there was no hair on her head. She lost it while coming in direct contact with the naked wires of a pumpset in a remote village. She was treated and grafted with skin. But I could provide her only a wig, because no remains of scalp were there for harvesting.
Recently, a young boy from Ongole in Andhra Pradesh, a Karagam dancer, climbed on top of a building, which had unauthorised construction. He jumped and danced and touched an overhead cable. Immediately, he was flung down, with 70% deep burns. He was treated in Kanchi Kamakoti CHILDS Trust Hospital for three months and he has now gone home.
The problem in this case was the exorbitant cost of drugs and antibiotics that he had to take. He could not find the money to pay his dues. Concessions by the management and free treatment could not bridge the gap. Once again, charitable organisations and good Samaritans helped him. The Women’s Welfare Syndicate always helps these victims (Women’s Welfare Syndicate, Flat No.5 (1st) floor, Rajamathangi Flats, Josier Street, Nungambakkam, Chennai-600 034) in a big way and we are truly indebted to them. The Member of Parliament from Ongole also came to the rescue of the boy in a big way and so did several others.
When there are so many accidents, due to electricity and fire, we should have a commemoration stamp released this year “FIRE SAFETY AND FIRE MAINTENANCE A PRIORITY OF THE COUNTRY” in memory of the dead.
The cost of fire damage in terms of building and inanimate objects can be evaluated but can any of us assess the cost of a single life lost?
(The writer is Chief of Plastic Surgery & Burns and Chairperson, The CHILDS Trust Medical Research Foundation, Kanchi Kamakoti CHILDS Trust Hospital, Chennai. Email: kmr_mathangi@ hotmail.com)