June 28, 2017

MU Burn Surgeon Stresses Firework Safety on July Fourth

Patrick Fleenor is no stranger to dangerous situations. He spent four years serving as a Marine in an assault amphibian battalion. It was his job to get Marines safely from the ship to the shore.

After one tour of duty that included a deployment, he separated from active military and began a career in carpentry. His whole life changed after attending a family gathering for the Fourth of July in 2016.

Fleenor suffered a traumatic injury while lighting fireworks.

“I set up the firework, lit my punk, and went to light the fuse,” Fleenor said. “The next thing I knew, I was covering my eye. I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t open my eye. Out of my other eye I could see blood on my hands. I knew I needed to get to an emergency room fast.”

The firework Fleenor lit had a faulty fuse. Instead of giving him time to walk away, it exploded immediately, directly into his eye.

Jeffrey Litt, DO, is medical director of the burn and wound program at University of Missouri Health Care. He sees people injured by fireworks come into the ER every year around the Independence Day.

“Some of the injuries are quite serious,” Litt said. “Patients come in with burns to their face, hands and torso that can require extensive treatment including surgery. These burns cause severe pain as well as scarring that can not only be aesthetically displeasing, but can profoundly limit a patient’s range of motion for life.”

Despite surgeons’ best efforts, Fleenor was left blind in his injured eye due to scarring on his retina. Now, he encourages others to be extremely cautious when setting off fireworks.

“I remember just sitting in the ER crying to myself,” Fleenor said. “I did four years in the military and never came close to an injury like this. I don’t tell people not to shoot fireworks, but I do tell them to be safe.”

Litt, who also is an assistant professor of surgery at the MU School of Medicine, offers several suggestions to help prevent fireworks-related injuries:

  • Only use legal, approved fireworks.
  • Have a water source nearby, like a clean bucket of water.
  • Have a second bucket of water or sand to collect finished fireworks, which are often still hot.
  • Only set fireworks off on level ground.
  • Do not light a firework while it is still in your hand.
  • If a firework is lit, then goes out before going off, do not try to relight it.
  • Spectators should stay at least six feet from the firework display
  • Use appropriate safety gear, including protective eye wear.
  • Never place your body directly over a firework when lighting the fuse.

“Fireworks are far more dangerous than people realize,” Litt said. “Sparklers, for example, are the hottest fireworks available, and we give them to kids. They get up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. If you touch something that hot, you will get a severe burn in a fraction of a second.”

Litt says he knows Americans will always want to celebrate July 4 with fireworks. The safest way, he says, is to go to one of the local fireworks shows organized by professionals.

“I haven’t touched a firework since,” Fleenor said. “I’m not sure I ever will again.”

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