Doctors urge caution when celebrating with fireworks
Scott Garing’s mental images of the Fourth of July include more than the smell of hamburgers on the grill, the feel of the summer heat and the sight of brilliant explosions that light the sky. The LifeFlight helicopter nurse and part-time emergency room nurse for St. Francis Hospital Cranberry also remembers a bloodied child.
Garing, 47, of Jackson Township, had been called to the scene of an explosion where a West Virginia boy’s arm was blown off by a homemade pipe bomb.
“They were just trying to make something to make a big noise,” he said. “I just remember holding his stump up in the air and trying to control the bleeding.”
While he was an emergency room nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, a 7-year-old girl came in after an M-200 blew up in her hand.
“She had found the M-200 in a drawer and lit the fuse on the stove,” Garing said. “She tried to put it out by running it under the faucet in the kitchen sink, but the fuse was waterproof.
“All that was left were parts of the bones in her hand.”
Garing said it is difficult to see children injured by fireworks.
“It really depresses me sometimes because many of these accidents didn’t have to happen,” Garing said. “You hate to see kids penalized for the things they see done (by parents or adults) and try to copy.”
He said that around the holiday, emergency workers are more aware that an accident could happen.
“Just like the first day of deer season, you know someone is going to fall out of a tree stand or the first heavy snow, someone is going to have a heart attack shoveling the walk,” Garing said.
Fire officials, emergency room doctors and trauma surgeons fear patriotism spurred by Sept. 11 will lead to more vigorous celebrations and therefore more fireworks injuries this Independence Day.
“This is the most dangerous national holiday we have, and with 9-11 and the increased patriotism, people want to celebrate more, so it’s going to be more dangerous,” said Dr. Joan Mavrinac, a pediatrician and emergency medicine specialist at Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh.
In 2001, injuries from fireworks nationwide were down almost 16 percent from the year before but still were at the second-highest level in the last six years, according to recently released statistics from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Also in the commission’s 2001 report: eight deaths were attributed to fireworks, including a Pennsylvania man who twisted several firecracker fuses together and then was killed by the blast. Firecrackers caused the most injuries, at 1,500; followed by rockets, at 1,200.
Children ages 10 to 14 had the highest risk of injury at 6.5 hospital-treated injuries per 100,000 people, followed by children ages 15 to 19, at 5.1 injuries per 100,000 people; and then ages 5 to 9, with 4 injuries per 100,000 people.
Stephanie Adamchik, of McKees Rocks, never allowed fireworks in her home.
“Not even sparklers,” she said.
But when the friend of an older son brought an M-200 to her house in 1999, her son, Shawn, now 15, found it. He said it struck a table and dropped to the ground. Fire marshals later said that was all it took to ignite the unstable gunpowder.
As Shawn bent over the pick up the firecracker, it exploded.
“I just remember running downstairs,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything. My nerves were blown off.”
His mother heard the boom and shuddered at what she saw next.
“He was coming down the stairs with no hand and blood everywhere,” his mother said. “The only thing he had was the bone of his thumb.”
His left hand had been blown off.
Local doctors dread such injuries each year and warn repeatedly that fireworks injuries are painful, sometimes disfiguring and permanent — and in many cases, avoidable.
Children should not have access to powerful fireworks, let alone sparklers, which can burn as hot as 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, Mavrinac said.
“Why do you want your kids to have the potential to get hurt?” she said.
Personal use of fireworks except sparklers and other novelties is illegal in Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh, even sparklers are illegal, with offenders facing the possibility of a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail for possessing, selling or using any fireworks.
“We’re not trying to be the grinch that stole the Fourth of July,” Pittsburgh fire Chief Peter J. Micheli Jr. said. “You wouldn’t give your kid an open flame. Why would you give them a piece of metal that is 1,200 degreesâ¢ It doesn’t make sense.”
Three general types of injuries are associated with fireworks — eye, hand/extremity and blast wounds that can include burns and abdominal injuries — according to Dr. Barbara Gaines, associate trauma director at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“We see probably two or three kids a year injured by fireworks,” said Gaines, who last year treated a young boy who lost several fingers when a firecracker exploded in his hand. “That’s the hardest thing to tell a kid, that they’re going to have something that’s not going to get better.”
Shawn Adamchik was in the hospital for only four days, but, his mother said, he still suffers bouts of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the accident.
The Sto-Rox High School student slowly is adapting to his disability. He has learned to play basketball and hockey with only one hand, but he refuses to wear his prosthetic left hand.
“It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel right,” said Shawn, who is eager for a transplant. “When I’m 21, I’ll be able to get a hand, a real one. They have to wait until I finish growing.”
In the meantime, Shawn said, his missing hand is a constant reminder to his friends of why they shouldn’t play with fireworks.
“I keep telling them not to mess around with them,” he said, “and they listen to me.”