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Breathing Life Into Surgical Smoke Safety
A nurse's devastating lung cancer diagnosis inspired an impassioned plea for evacuation legislation.
Joe Paone
Publish Date: March 9, 2021   |  Tags:   Staff Safety
IMPORTANT CAUSE Angela Hohn wants surgical professionals to understand the dangers of surgical smoke and take steps to protect themselves from harm.

The persistent pain above her ribcage made sleeping at night nearly impossible. "My primary care physician dismissed it as a muscular injury that would correct itself," says Angela Hohn, RN, BSN, BS, CNOR, FCN, a perioperative nurse in the Atlanta VA Health Care System. "So did I."

In February 2020, after months of agony, Ms. Hohn finally went to the ER, where a CT scan revealed a lesion on her right lung. The next day, a pulmonologist identified the growth as a tumor and suggested it was malignant. A biopsy confirmed stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer? Impossible.

Ms. Hohn was an avid runner who had always taken preventative medicine seriously. She'd never smoked, nor lived with anyone who did. "I was very active, vibrant and health-conscious, doing all the right things," says Ms. Hohn. "When I got the diagnosis, I simply didn't believe it."

She was so blindsided by the news that she thought her results had been confused with those of another patient. Devastated, she checked in with her primary care physician. "She said, 'Something's not right here," recalls Ms. Hohn. "'You're on top of your health and you live a clean life. Have you ever considered that your cancer was caused by exposure to smoke at work?'"

The conversation caused Ms. Hohn to reflect on her career. She'd been an OR nurse since 1979, starting in England and working in Jamaica in the early 1980s until she arrived in the U.S. in 1985. She reentered the OR in the early 1990s and continued working in surgery for the next two decades. All along, she had a vague notion of the harmfulness of surgical smoke, but the issue had never been a priority.

It still wasn't when Ms. Hohn began the fight for her life at the start of the pandemic. All she wanted to do was get better. "That was a difficult time," she says. "I was immunocompromised, and family members were a threat to my well-being, so they stayed away. I was alone and petrified."

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