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Meth Lab Injuries Burden Hospitals

Emergency rooms and burn units strain to treat victims of accidents at illicit sites. Chemicals can cause blindness.

May 18, 2003|Caryn Rousseau | Associated Press Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — They often arrive anonymously, dumped in the hospital's emergency room with burns over their bodies.

Some become blind because they won't tell a doctor how they were injured, afraid that mentioning any of the chemicals used to make methamphetamine will get them prosecuted.

As the number of burn victims from meth lab explosions and fires rise, doctors at burn units say they've had to take a more aggressive approach to treating patients.

Common injuries include chemical burns and scalds to the skin. Other chemicals can blind victims by seeping into their eyes and melting their corneas. Those burns take days to set in.

Pam Holt worked as a nurse at St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Mo., where some meth burn patients refused to admit how they were injured, even though she could often tell the cause.

"I would say to them, 'If you were making meth and you got this in your eyes you could go blind, so you have to come clean with me,' " Holt said. "If they tell us and they're honest, then we can help them, but in two days the damage is irreversible."

Once, a teenage boy came in with burns on his face. He had been making meth in his parents' basement when chemicals leaked.

"He denied it was a meth lab; said it was a carburetor," Holt said. "He got this chemical in his eyes and is blind to this day."

Jimmy Parks, a nurse in the burn unit at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said sometimes the truth will come out, but only after much prodding and coaxing.

"They hardly ever say, 'I was working on my meth lab,' " Parks said. "Usually, [they claim] the water heater blew up. And then it kind of comes along when we finally work it out."

The patients drain already financially strapped burn units.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration said Missouri had 2,207 methamphetamine lab seizures in 2001, more than twice the number in 2000 -- 863. In Arkansas, one of the Southern states with soaring numbers, 366 seizures were reported in 2001, up from 235 the year before. In Oklahoma, seizures jumped from 383 in 2000 to 580 a year later.

But in New York, only eight seizures were recorded in 2001.

"You can pretty much guess that people who are running meth labs out of their back room are not insured," Parks said. "Percentage-wise, they tax more than the average patients."

That's not the only problem that patients injured in meth lab accidents bring to burn units.

"There's always a danger to the paramedics," said Dr. Ken Larson, who heads the burn unit at St. John's Hospital. "They [the burn victim] can still have chemicals on them, so they can get my personnel contaminated."

Burn units have changed the way they treat their patients because of the delayed reactions to the chemicals.

Larson is writing a paper that he plans to distribute to hospitals that regularly deal with injuries from explosions at meth labs.

He said that emergency workers on the front lines need to know what to look for when they first treat the patients, and that workers can expect the patients to lie.

"Now anytime anyone has any burns around the eye -- it may have nothing to do with meth -- we treat all of them as if they have ... exposure to those chemicals. It's extra effort on our staff, but it could save vision," Larson said.

At Hillcrest Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., nurses immediately do a drug test if they suspect that methamphetamine may be involved in a burn.

"We do a drug screen so we know what we're dealing with," said Lisa Delozier, nurse manager at the hospital's burn unit.

Sometimes the police must intervene.

"These guys come in and we have the police sitting with them sometimes," Parks said. "Sometimes they leave against medical advice. They're afraid they're going to get in trouble with the law."

Larson said it is his job to treat the patient; it's up to the police to put the manufacturers out of business. Doctor-patient confidentiality is always part of the equation.

"That's a fine line," Larson said. "It's not something where I'm willing to call the police department, where I say, 'Joe over here, he's been making meth and you need to check out his house.' "

Police say they speak with prosecutors before questioning any medical workers.

"We wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the doctor-patient relationship," said Capt. Mike Davidson, of the Arkansas State Police. "But some doctors might be willing to openly discuss what would have been said."

Hospitals have trouble pinning down numbers to prove how much methamphetamine lab injuries burden burn units. St. John's points to between eight and 10 cases out of 250 burns in a year, but patients being less than frank skew the data.

"The problem with reporting is that you have to base your data on what the patient tells you," Holt said.

With firmer numbers, hospitals could seek additional funding to ease the strain on their budgets. "As a state, the taxpayers are having to fund that payment for these fires that are related to illicit drug production," Larson said.

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