Surgeon Signs Initials into Patients' Livers: What Is an 'Argon Beam'?

simon bramhall
A photo of Simon Bramhall taken in November. (Image credit: Richard Vernalls/PA Wire/Zuma)

A British surgeon has pleaded guilty to charges that he marked his initials into patients' organs using a medical instrument called an "argon beam coagulator," according to news reports. But what exactly is this instrument, and are its effects permanent?

The surgeon, Simon Bramhall, admitted to the charge of assault for his 2013 actions, in which he used the argon beam to sign "SB" into the livers of two patients during transplant surgery, The Guardian reported yesterday (Dec. 13). A colleague later discovered Bramhall's initials on a patient's liver during a follow-up surgery, and Bramhall was suspended and then resigned from his position at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in 2014.

An argon beam coagulator is an instrument that creates a stream of argon gas, which is then used to transmit an electrical current. [10 'Barbaric' Medical Treatments That Are Still Used Today]

With the electrical current following through it, the gas stream "creates a very thin char" on the surface of an organ to which it is applied, said Dr. Dmitri Alden, a surgical oncologist specializing in liver, pancreas and bile-duct surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved with the case. The argon beam tool is used mainly to control bleeding of the liver and spleen during surgery, Alden said. "We're able to 'paint' the raw surface [of the organ] where the bleeding is coming from," he said.

The process can look dramatic, like "something out of 'Star Wars,'" Alden said, referring to the glowing electrical current that bursts from the tip of the instrument.

However, "as dramatic as it looks, it creates minimal damage," Alden told Live Science. "It controls the bleeding, but it does not penetrate deep into the organ," so there's no risk of damaging the internal structure, he said.

The scar left by the procedure will go away over time, Alden said. Following the procedure, the tissue underneath the scar heals, and later, the scar will either fall off or get absorbed. If the patient later has another operation on the same organ, doctors won't find any traces of the argon beam burn, Alden said.

But in the case of Bramhall's patient, the liver had existing damage and did not heal normally, which made the marks visible to another doctor, according to the BBC.

Although the procedure is not harmful, using it to write initials on an organ "is a big deal from an ethical standpoint," Alden said. "I'm appalled" by this, he added.

Bramhall was released on bail and will be sentenced Jan. 12, according to The Guardian.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.