The 51-year-old and her brother Steven and Gavin, both 56, still suffer flashbacks from the difficult weeks leading up to the death of their father Bill at Ellen’s Glen House, an Edinburgh community hospital.
Grandad-of-five Bill, 82, who also had dementia and was deaf in one ear, was moved to the Liberton facility when he was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer in October 2013 and he stayed there until his death four weeks later.
Things started well but soon his family discovered chronic staff shortages had created “a systemic failure” within the facility.
Bill’s cancer had spread to his lungs, his liver and his bones – causing him severe pain – yet confusion around his prescriptions meant he was only given paracetamol for pain management.
Shona, from Morningside, said: “One day we went in and he was roaring with pain. That’s the only was I can think to describe it. He was screaming. My father was a very strong person and I’d very rarely seen him cry. He was very distressed.”
During another visit, Shona and her brothers found their father hanging out of his bed, half-dressed, and crying for help. He was dehydrated and surrounded by mugs of tea and glasses of water that he was too weak to lift.
Shona said: “He was shouting at us, ‘Help me, help me, I’m dying. Why won’t someone help me?’
“Those are the last words I ever heard my dad say. My brothers and I will never get that picture of our dad – wide-eyed and distressed – out of our minds.”
Shona described how she heard vulnerable patients vomiting or choking on their food or shouting out in distress as buzzers went unanswered.
The family found one woman with dementia lying in the hall as she had fallen out of bed and crawled to the door to attract attention.
When nursing staff were challenged, many broke down in tears, while a senior medic told them staffing levels were “dangerously low”.
Shona said: “We got to know the staff in the time we were there and they were absolutely lovely.
“They were wonderful, wonderful people working in absolutely intolerable conditions.”
Bill, who was born in the Canongate and lived in Edinburgh most of his life, died peacefully with his three children at his side.
Despite their grief, the family decided to fight on after his death and have met top bosses at NHS Lothian and health secretary Shona Robison to get answers.
An adverse incident review last year found that more than £3 million was needed to safely staff the continuing care units in Lothian but no one was able to say where the money would come from, said Shona.
She has joined other whistleblowers, clinicians and activists to form ASAP NHS, which is calling for the creation of an independent NHS regulator with full investigatory and disciplinary powers.
The group claimed as many as 2000 unnecessary deaths are taking place within the NHS each year.
Shona, who works for a software company, said: “They don’t want to have to deal with the ticking timebomb that is elderly care. These are people who fought for their country, who helped to build this country.
“Some of these people had no-one to act as advocate for them.
“I call them the lost voices. These are the people who have no-one to speak up for them.”
Lothian Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who hosted the launch at the Scottish Parliament, said cases like this raise very serious concerns over patient safety.
He said: “Bill Oliver’s case is obviously very shocking and it is sadly not an isolated one.
“When [staff] have tried to raise these issues and do something about it, they have instead been ignored or stonewalled and some have been turned out of their jobs.
“I have a real concern about the care within the NHS and how genuine whistleblowers are treated.”
NHS Lothian has apologised to the family and pledged to learn from an upcoming review by Health Improvement Scotland.
Maria Wilson, chief nurse of the Edinburgh Integrated Joint Board, said: “I would like to take this opportunity to once again express our sincere condolences to Ms Oliver and her family.
“NHS Lothian conducted a wide-ranging independent review, which covered staffing, finance and levels of care, after Ms Oliver raised her concerns and have kept in touch with her throughout this process.
“That review is now complete and the findings of the investigation and improvement plans have been shared with Ms Oliver and her family. An independent inspection, by Health Improvement Scotland is now due to be carried out, and we will implement any recommendations as soon as they are published.”
Ms Robison said: “The Scottish Government is committed to improving care for older people. We are working with HIS to extend inspections from acute setting to include community hospitals.
“Separately, we welcome the review which HIS are undertaking in NHS Lothian which will look at all hospital-based complex clinical care settings. We look forward to seeing the learning from this.”