Meth Fills Hospitals With Burn Patients

Up to a third of patients in certain burn units were hurt while trying to make methamphetamine.

+ More

Few people burned by meth will admit it.

"We get a lot of people who have strange stories," said Dr. David Greenhalgh, past president of the American Burn Association and director of the burn center at the University of California, Davis. "They'll say they were working on the carburetor at 2 or 3 in the morning and things blew up. So we don't know for sure, but 25 to 35 percent of our patients are meth-positive when we check them."

Guy cited a similar percentage at Vanderbilt, which operates the largest burn unit in Tennessee. He said the lies can come with a big price because the chemicals used in meth-making are often as dangerous as the burns themselves.

He recalled the case of a woman who arrived with facial burns that she said were caused by a toaster. As a result, she didn't tell doctors that meth-making chemicals got into her eyes, delaying treatment.

"Now she's probably going to be blind because she wasn't honest about it," Guy said.

In Indiana, about three-quarters of meth busts now involve shake-and-bake. And injuries are rising sharply, mostly because of burns, said Niki Crawford of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Team.

Indiana had 89 meth-related injuries during the 10-year period ending in 2009. The state has had 70 in the last 23 months, mostly from shake-and-bake labs, Crawford said.

What's more, meth-related burns often sear some of the body's most sensitive areas—the face and hands.

"I don't think a lot of these patients will be able to re-enter society, said Dr. Lucy Wibbenmeyer of the burn center at the University of Iowa. "They'll need rehab therapy, occupational therapy, which is very expensive."

Researchers at the University of Iowa found that people burned while making meth typically have longer hospital stays and more expensive bills than other burn patients—bills that are frequently absorbed by the hospital since a vast majority of the meth-makers lack insurance.

Medicaid provides reimbursement for many patients lacking private insurance, but experts say it amounts to pennies on the dollar.

Doctors at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich., performed a five-year study of meth patients in the early 2000s, then a follow-up study in 2009-2010. Their investigation concurred with the Iowa findings. The Kalamazoo study also found that meth burn victims were more likely to suffer damage to the lungs and windpipe, spent more time on ventilators and needed surgery more often.

That report also found that only about 10 percent of meth patients had private insurance coverage, compared with 59 percent of other patients. And in many cases, their injuries leave them unable to work.