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Alzheimer's Patient Locked In Freezer

Dec 31, 2002 | The News Journal An area search for a 60-year-old Lewes woman with Alzheimer's disease ended Saturday night when staff at the Lewes Convalescent Center discovered she had been locked inside a kitchen freezer for nearly five hours.

The victim was admitted to Beebe Medical Center in critical condition with severe frostbite. The 89-bed facility where the incident occurred is owned by Beebe.

The victim's son, Chris Connaway of Wilmington, N.C., said his mother probably will lose at least three fingers on each hand. Beebe Medical Center spokeswoman Sharon Harmon said the woman was in fair condition Monday.

Lewes police and the state's Department of Long Term Care Resident Protection are investigating the incident at the 440 Market St. nursing home.

Nursing-home administrator Owen Schwartz said he intends to set up several new safety measures to prevent any similar incidents.

"We still don't know if she went in the freezer by herself or she followed someone in and couldn't get out," Lewes police Detective John Miller said.

The police search was called off when nursing-home staff found the woman at 8:40 p.m.

Harmon said she was last seen by employees at the nurses' station at 3:30 p.m. and probably had been in the freezer since at least 4 p.m., when a nurse went to her room and noticed she was missing.

Nursing-home supervisors contacted police shortly thereafter, and employees told police they had searched the building several times, Miller said. The state police helicopter conducted an aerial search, while Lewes Fire Company volunteers combed nearby neighborhoods, Fire Chief Gordon Davis said.

"My biggest question is why didn't someone check the freezer when they were looking for her throughout the building?" Miller said. "This is a freezer with temperatures that get down below zero."

The freezer is directly behind the walk-in refrigerator in the kitchen, Schwartz said. The only way to get to the freezer is to walk through the refrigerator.

Schwartz said he regrets the mistake and will develop a more comprehensive search procedure that will include mandatory training for the staff.

Harmon said staffing on Saturday exceeded the state's mandated nursing-home staffing requirements.

"The staff did check except for one critical area," said Schwartz, who said he has 22 years' experience as a nursing-home administrator. He said a patient has never before been misplaced in his almost two-year tenure at the convalescent home. "I have to live with this the rest of my life."

Connaway and his 38-year-old brother, Shawn, were at a loss Monday to understand how such an incident could occur.

He said his mother was admitted to Beebe Medical Center on Christmas Day with health concerns that included severe vomiting. Doctors recommended a few weeks of short-term rehabilitation at the nearby hospital-owned nursing home.

Connaway said his mother was discharged from the hospital Saturday morning and checked into the facility at 11:20 a.m. Four hours later, she was missing.

"My mother has dementia. She was supposed to be watched," Connaway said.

Schwartz said the facility has no dedicated Alzheimer's wing and only about three or four of its 86 patients have the disease.

Schwartz said he already has checked into providing alarm bracelets for patients prone to wander. He said he also plans to secure areas not intended for patients' use, install self-locking mechanisms on the kitchen doors that allow employees to exit but bar access to patients, and place a keypad lock on the refrigeration unit. The facility also plans to add security cameras to the corridors, he said.

Allison Taylor Levine, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Social Services, said the state began an investigation Sunday to determine whether any issues of abuse, neglect or mistreatment were involved in the case.

"We are looking to see if there is a specific individual who can be shown to be negligent," Levine said. "We are also looking at the license to see if the facility violated any rules, regulations or laws pertaining to its license."

Schwartz said the nursing home filed a report to the state on the incident within 24 hours, as required by law.

The investigation's findings will determine what action the state takes, Levine said.

Chris Connaway said his mother's two hands and feet are bandaged, her ears have blisters and her nose is frostbitten.

"They said she was not out of the woods yet," Shawn Connaway said.

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