An elderly nursing home patient’s hands and feet froze when he was left alone by staff and allowed to wander (elope) from the facility outside into below-freezing temperatures. The patient, who had Alzheimers disease, Parkinsons disease, and a known tendency to wander, exited the nursing home from a door in the facility’s activity room, which family said should have been locked and alarmed. The nursing home acknowledged that it had earlier considered placing a lock on the exit door. Since the incident, the facility has placed an alarm on the door.
When the man was found, he was taken to a hospital, where a plastic surgeon tried to remove dead tissue from his fingers. In the days that followed, his fingers began turning black, requiring them to be amputated above the knuckles of the left hand. The tips of the man’s thumbs were also amputated. In addition, frostbite injury to the man’s heels have prevented him from walking since the incident. He is now wheelchair-bound. Read more about the tragedy.
I recently represented in Virginia the family of a demented female patient who was permitted to wander (elope) from a Roanoke area nursing home, walk one mile from the facility along some train tracks, fall, and sustain serious injuries. During the lawsuit against the nursing home’s owners and operators, we discovered the nursing home had, in the years prior, permitted other patients to wander from the facility. The nursing home never installed after these incidents door alarms that would have alerted staff when patients attempted to exit. The result at trial? — the largest verdict in Virginia against a nursing home or assisted living facility for allowing one of its patients to wander away (elope).
The facility in this man’s case claims the incident was so devastating that it hired a counselor to help its staff cope. What should be just as devastating to the facility is the knowledge that a door alarm system, which costs less per patient than a single grief counseling session for staff, would have prevented this man’s injuries. Alarms that prevent wandering (elopement) have been standard since the early to mid-1990s. Those alarms are inexpensive, reliable, and effective. There is no good reason for a nursing home in the 21st century not to have these alarms!
The response by this man’s family was profound: “At the core of this, the thing that we’ve lost is trust.” Trust me — the nursing home’s decision to risk the safety of its patients by not buying an alarm caused this man to lose his fingers. The decision by the facility’s staff to leave their patient unsupervised in a rom with a direct outdoor exit also caused his injuries. Every decision has consequences. The nursing home’s owners, operators, and staff should bear the consequences of their decisions, just as the patient and his family are trying to deal with this loss.
Robert W. Carter, Jr. is a Virginia attorney whose law practice is dedicated to protecting the rights of the victims of nursing home and assisted living neglect and abuse in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Lynchburg, Danville, Charlottesville, and across Virginia.