Sudden Unexpected Death At a Nursing Home

Examples of Sudden Death in a Nursing Home

Sudden Unexplained Death in a Nursing HomeA woman, who lived in a Marietta nursing home, was in a unit where several residents were on a pureed diet. She choked to death on a bowl of peanut butter taken from a kitchenette without staff knowledge.

Another nursing home resident, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, was attacked by a male resident with a known history of prior violent attacks on other residents. She died five days later from massive brain injuries caused by the attack.

A Cambridge, Ohio man living in a nursing facility wandered outside the home when temperatures were below zero and did not realize he should attempt to find shelter. He froze to death before anyone realized he was missing from the home. At the opposite extreme, an 89-year-old woman died from heat stroke while in a home.

These are all examples of sudden or unexpected death in the nursing home environment where unexplained events can result in unforeseen injury, illness, discomfort or loss of life. Families arrive to visit their loved one and discover they have passed away without warning. They expected the highest level of care and they want answers as to why their relative has suddenly died.

Who is responsible in a sudden death incident?

Sometimes it is difficult to know where to point the finger of blame for these incidents which are for the most part preventable if the proper standard of care had been followed. Many of these types of facilities are notoriously understaffed and employees overworked so the constant attention that is often required to care for elderly patients is not present. Statistics show that more than 30 percent of nursing homes in the United States have received an abuse citation. Another 70 percent of nursing home abuse cases go unreported and nearly 90 percent of residents do not get the care they need.

A care plan for the patient may be in place, but it is not always followed. One woman whose bed was to be kept in a low position with floor mats to soften any fall did not have these safety measures taken by nursing home staff. When she fell, no medical attention was given to her injuries and emergency personnel were not called. She was simply put back in bed as though nothing had happened. She was later found unresponsive and died at the hospital.

Notifying family of sudden changes in a patient’s condition

Federal and state laws require that the nursing home resident’s physician and family members be notified of serious changes in the resident’s condition that affect his or her health. This includes notification about serious illnesses that may require hospitalization and less severe problems that could become more threatening such as bedsores and urinary tract infections.

If there is a sudden change in condition, the nurse is required to perform a complete assessment of the basic problems and the resident’s vital signs and notify the home physician or the medical director. If neither of these individuals can be reached, the nurse should call 911. After the resident is stabilized, the nursing home staff should notify a family member or responsible party about the change in the resident’s condition.

Changes you should be told about

There are many instances that would qualify as a change in condition that a family member should be made aware of including:

  • A fall with head injury and mental status changes; a fall with lacerations with poorly controlled bleeding; a fall with pain and change in function; a fall which leaves a patient’s extremity obviously deformed.
  • Three or more loose stools in 24 hours; Any loose stool and evidence of dehydration and changes in vital signs.
  • Vomiting three or more times in 24 hours; Vomiting with changes in vital signs or evidence of dehydration; Blood or coffee grounds in the vomit.
  • Medication errors that have the potential to cause significant side effects; Medication errors resulting from administering a medication when the patient has a known allergy; Medication errors that cause the resident to have negative symptoms; Medication errors related to not administering medication.
  • New onset of chest pain; Chest pain not relieved by nitroglycerin; Chest pain accompanied by changes in vital signs, sweating, nausea, vomiting or shortness of breath.
  • Inability to verify placement of a feeding tube, to irrigate a feeding tube after trying to unclog it, inability to place a feeding tube immediately after removal.
  • Sudden decline in mental status or a change in behavior that places a resident at a danger to himself or others.
  • Signs of an impending stroke such as facial drooping, numbness in an extremity, or sudden loss of use of an extremity.
  • New onset of seizures.
  • Episodes of bleeding such as dark, bloody urine, bloody stools not due to hemorrhoids, bloody vomit.
  • Skin rash with itching, swelling around the face and neck.
  • X-ray with hew findings.
  • Urine culture with more than 100,000 bacteria with symptoms of a urinary tract infection.
  • Pressure sores greater than Stage I or bed sores that have worsened.
  • Vital signs changes such as increase or decrease in systolic blood pressure by 30 points; Increase in pulse by 20 beats per minute or below 50 beats per minute; Increase or decrease in respiration by 6 breaths per minute; Temperature rise by two degrees; Oxygen saturation less than 90%.

Should you have an autopsy performed?

When you have a suspicious death occur in a nursing home that may turn into a wrongful death claim, you may want to think about having an autopsy performed on your loved one. Often the doctor who lists the cause of death on the death certificate of the nursing home resident lists a chronic condition the resident suffered such as congestive heart failure or heart disease. There may have been something that happened that the physician was not aware of, so he goes with the information he has about the patient and closes the case. There is also evidence in studies done in the medical field that 50 percent of nursing home deaths due to falls, suicide, homicide and choking are covered up and attributed to an inaccurate cause.

Having an autopsy done can be of great help in determining whether abuse or neglect played a role in the death of your loved one. Otherwise, it may be difficult to prove it was a lack of proper medical care that resulted in death. If an autopsy is not requested, the actual cause of death may never be known and the responsible parties will continue abusing and neglecting patients.

If your loved one had any of the following conditions before he or she died, there may be questions to be answered as all may be indicative of abuse or neglect of the nursing home resident:

  • Bed sores
  • Malnutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Falls
  • Infections
  • Problems with medications

The autopsy rate for nursing home residents is 0.8 percent, significantly lower than that for the general population (8.5% in 2007 according to the U.S. Center for Health Statistics). According to the Textbook of Pallative Nursing, published by Oxford University Press, deaths of older people happen much more frequently in nursing homes than in the past and 33% of all elder deaths now occur in nursing home settings. If there is any indication at all that a nursing home resident may have died as the result of neglect or abuse, an autopsy should be requested. If a nurse or doctor at the nursing facility says there is no need to notify the medical examiner about a death or the medical examiner declines to perform an autopsy, these are red flags that there may be something amiss. The next of kin should consider not taking this advice and instead having an autopsy done.

If an autopsy isn’t performed, does that mean we cannot help you? Absolutely not; more often than not we deal with deaths that are incorrectly listed on a death certificate. While this can make our jobs tougher, it certainly doesn’t stop us from fighting to bring the truth to light and securing justice for our clients.

If you think your loved one may have been the victim of wrongful unexpected death in a nursing home in Ohio, contact one of our experienced nursing home abuse attorneys today.

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