Nearly five years ago, 20-yearold Lauren Wargo underwent what should have been a routine surgical procedure to remove a mole on her face.
She woke up in the recovery room unable to see. Her face was wrapped in gauze. Cool water streamed down her cheeks.
She caught only snippets of a nurse’s conversation with her father.
There’s been an accident.
There was a fire.
The next day, Lauren was transferred to the Burn Care Center at Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center, where skilled staff members removed bulbous blisters and scrubbed off charred skin on her face.
Thus began her four-year recovery for an injury that never should have happened.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that as many as 650 surgical fires occur each year in hospitals. The number is probably higher, as only 27 states require the reporting of such fires. Experts argue that all of these fires are preventable with training for surgical staff and proper communication in operating rooms.
Last month, the FDA finally rolled out the “Preventing Surgical Fires” initiative for hospitals.
Lauren wonders what took so long.
When she came home from the hospital, her family covered the mirrors in the house. She caught images of her disfigured face gradually, in stages. The first time, she stood several feet away from a mirror and then quickly looked away. Sometimes she spotted herself in window reflections. She has no recollection of ever studying her face up close in a mirror.
She returned to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, hiding under a baseball cap, walking with her head down. Every weekend, her parents picked her up for treatment in Cleveland.
“ I felt awful about myself,” she said. “I was anxious and depressed. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”
Nearly five years since the fire, only a trained eye can spot the physical evidence of Lauren’s ordeal. She is the consummate expert in this regard. She quickly mentions the damaged eyelid that makes it impossible for her left eye to remain closed. She does this matter-of-factly, without complaint.
I’ve known Lauren since the mid-1990s, when I was her softball coach for several years. Lauren was one of the best players on the team — calm and fiercely focused, with a killer arm and split-second reflexes. Quite the hitter, too.
Lauren was a born leader. She was never a hot dog and cheered her teammates from the bench. She was also a willowy blond beauty who seemed destined to escape the awkward stage that haunts most adolescents.
Traditional storytelling would cast Lauren as a gifted young woman whose luck ran out the day she underwent surgery to remove that tiny mole from her face. Except that luck has nothing to do with what happened to Lauren or how she has recovered.
Shy, reticent Lauren decided to go public with her ordeal.
She sued her surgeon and went to trial. Lauren testified that the burn center staff members told her they thought a combustible combination of oxygen and an electrical device used to seal blood vessels led to the fire during her surgery. The jury awarded her $1.3 million in damages. The doctor’s appeal is pending.
Testifying in an open courtroom, in front of the unapologetic surgeon, sparked emotional healing that had eluded her during two years of therapy.
“I told my lawyer, the doctor and everybody in the courtroom how this fire has changed my life,” she said. “A huge burden was lifted. I had felt like I lost who I was. That day, I got that back.”
Last year, Lauren reached out to a reporter for The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland after she read a story about surgical fires at the Cleveland Clinic. Last week, she appeared on “Today.” Both the newspaper and the TV show ran photos of her face scorched and swollen by the fire.
“My story has the potential to bring changes,” she said. “Most of these cases are settled (out of court), and so injured patients can’t talk about it. My case went to trial, so everything is public.”
At 24, she struggles with one regret.
“I feel like I almost wasted two years of my life being upset. Bad things happen to everyone, including me. You decide whether to spend the rest of your life being unhappy about it.”
Lauren chooses happiness, proving again that she is a born leader.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.