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Retsil resident catches himself on fire

Fire District 7 units responded to reports of a structure fire at Retsil Veterans’ Home just before noon Saturday, only to discover one of the residents had accidentally set himself on fire while smoking.

The 72-year-old man, largely confined to a wheelchair, apparently let ashes from the cigarette fall into his lap and smolder. When he returned to his room in the hospital wing, his roommate noticed the smoke and tried to put out the smoldering ash. However, the cloth covering the man’s legs caught fire, and nurses had to be called to extinguish the flames.

The man was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with third-degree burns on his legs. The two nurses who battled the fire were transported to Harrison Hospital — one with first- and second-degree burns on her hands and the other with smoke inhalation. Six other people were treated on-site for lesser-grade smoke inhalation.

Both nurses were later released.

The man, who was in fair to stable condition Monday afternoon, was due to be released from Harborview as soon as yesterday. Retsil Superintendent Bob Jones said although the Harborview doctors wanted to treat the man further — they suggested skin grafts and partial amputation of his leg — the man refused surgery.

“He just refused it,” Jones said. “He wants to keep his leg. It’s his decision.”

Jones said the man’s burns had fully penetrated his skin layers, cutting off circulation to parts of his leg. If the dead part of the leg is not amputated, the man could face complications such as gangrene. Jones said if the man does not agree to treatment, there is nothing doctors can do.

“(Staff) doesn’t feel he understands the gravity of the situation,” Jones said. “It’s become quite a thing for us. We hate to see him make this decision.”

Jones said he was planning a meeting between the burn victim and one of Retsil’s social workers, in hopes of convincing him to seek care. He said as long as the man is judged capable of making coherent decisions, no one can override his wishes.

Jones said smoking accidents are a constant source of concern at the home but, in reality, there’s little staff can do. Retsil provides smoking aprons, but residents can refuse to use them. Those with chronic smoking problems are often required to smoke only with supervision, but Jones said that can put a strain on staff.

“With the number of smokers we have, it’s a difficult nursing situation,” he said.

Serious incidents are rare, however. The last time a resident caught fire from carelessness with a cigarette was 10 years ago.

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