Burn-related death at care facility investigated 

Bruce Smith was smoking outside the Burlingame Long-Term Care facility at 3:30 p.m. when he apparently dropped the cigarette onto his gown, which caught fire.

Days later, the 67-year-old died at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco from the burns he suffered.

The fatal fire is now under investigation by state and local health authorities.

“Reportedly, he was smoking a cigarette and dropped it on his gown, which ignited into flames,” an investigator’s report from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office reads. “Nursing staff was alerted to the situation and dowsed the subject with water to extinguish the fire.”

Paramedics rushed Smith to the hospital. He had second- and third-degree burns over 18 percent of his body, including his face, head, neck, torso and arms, according to the medical examiner.

Despite undergoing surgeries, he developed pneumonia and sepsis. His condition steadily declined until he died due to complications from the burns at 11:32 a.m. Dec. 26, according to the report. The death was ruled an accident.

Dr. Susan Ehrlich, chief of the San Mateo Medical Center, called the death “a very sad and unfortunate event,” though she declined to describe the incident, citing confidentiality rules.

“We want to be as transparent about these events as we can but we also have to protect patient confidentiality,” Ehrlich told The San Francisco Examiner.

Ehrlich said the county immediately reported the incident to the state and is conducting a “thorough internal investigation” that is expected to be completed next month.

“Anytime anything like this happens, or anytime anything happens that is unfortunate or that we believe in any way may have been prevented, we want to use that as a learning opportunity to improve,” she said.

It is unclear whether Smith was supervised or with any other patients while he was smoking, or how long it took for staff to respond.

In an e-mail, San Mateo County Health System spokeswoman Robyn Thaw said the center’s patients are evaluated “to assess their level of independence for various activities including smoking,” and “any patient deemed independent has the right to smoke outside the facility by him or herself.”

Smith’s death comes just more than seven years after the county took over the Burlingame center, which is licensed for up to 281 beds, as a result of problems at the facility under private ownership prior to late 2002.

Under the private operator, two patients died of heat exhaustion and a third was severely injured after a wheelchair went down the building’s front steps, according to a 2004 civil grand jury report.

State authorities took over and put the facility into receivership after the private operator declared bankruptcy and lost its license, and the county agreed to take over the facility in August 2003.


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Shaun Bishop

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