ERI neglect claims: Mum left to die in agony at hospital

Helen Millar who died at the ERI
Helen Millar who died at the ERI
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A DYING mum was twice forced to phone her family from her hospital bed in excruciating pain because she couldn’t get hold of a nurse to give her pain relief, her sister said today.

Social care worker Helen Millar suffered from a lack of basic care at the ERI in the weeks before she died aged 54, according to an official complaint lodged by relatives.

Ms Millar’s sister Moira Phair said there were striking similarities between her experience and the shortcomings highlighted in a damning report into care of the elderly at the hospital.

The family were among several to contact the Evening News with complaints about care standards at the hospital in the wake of Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s critical report. The family claim that following Ms Millar’s admission in April, they were forced to step in to do the jobs medical staff should have performed, including helping Ms Millar with her food and drink, moving her to prevent bed sores, administering creams and ensuring she was taking medication.

They say Ms Millar was forced to phone members of her family from her hospital bed in excruciating pain, such was the lack of support and pain relief she received, while a buzzer was put out of her reach. Ms Phair said that during the first call, her sister said she had been hanging out her bed to be sick and had attempted to call a nurse without success, forcing Ms Phair to phone the ward herself to ask for help.

On the second occasion, Ms Phair said she received a call at work from Helen complaining she had not been given morphine two hours after complaining of agonising pains.

The concerns are highlighted in an official complaint to NHS Lothian, which is currently being processed, and was submitted shortly before Ms Millar, a mother of one, passed away in June.

She was treated in a series of wards at the Royal Infirmary over the course of her ten-week stay, including ward 106, which inspectors visited. It was her ninth admission since November. It was only later in her treatment she was diagnosed as being termminally ill. Pancreatitis was listed as a cause of death, alongside a pulmonary embolism and septicaemia, which her family believe she picked up in hospital due to the poor standard of care she received.

Ms Phair, who lived next door to her sister in Portobello, said: “I had mixed feelings reading it [the report] but I was relieved that someone had backed up what we had been saying as a family for months. People have been shaking their heads, saying that this couldn’t have gone on, but we know it did.

“Helen was a very poorly woman which all her family and friends could visibly see. Every day when we visited there was always something that was shocking to us in the basic care needs of not just Helen, but other patients also. Our lives are shattered and the lack of or non-existent basic care is at the forefront of our minds when we think of Helen.”

She added: “Helen was worried about asking for help because she thought she was going to get a row. But she had bed sores because she wasn’t being moved. We had to go in outside of visiting times, or we knew she wouldn’t have got a drink or anything to eat because they weren’t helping her. Helen didn’t have the strength to pick up her cup of tea or drink of water, let alone eat any food.

“I do feel sorry for the elderly because they might not have someone to speak up for them. But this isn’t just affecting the elderly. It’s dreadful to think about how she spent her last weeks. She lost her confidence and everything else. She had been bubbly, vivacious and down to earth. We’re not saying the outcome would definitely have been different if she had been properly cared for, but we’ll never know.”

A former nurse who was admitted to the hospital on September 22 with chest pains also contacted the Evening News about treatment she witnessed being offered to a pensioner who lay in the bed opposite, claiming she was ignored despite being in agonising pain and appearing to have dangerously low blood pressure.

Moira Burden, 70, who worked at the old Royal Infirmary in the 1960s, said: “The woman was completely out of it. She kept calling out about her ankle, she was in terrible pain. Then she would fall back into a deep sleep. They gave her a jug of water but it was too far away for her to reach it and she didn’t even know it was there because she was so delirious. I didn’t see her getting fed once, and she had no pain relief.

“There were no staff there through the day and they would sit there laughing and joking at night.”

Ms Phair and Ms Burden are just two of several patients or families who have contacted the News to share their experiences of treatment at the ERI. Concerns over the nourishment offered to patients and a lack of care tailored to individual needs have been among the most common complaints.

One patient said it took more than two hours to re-attach a drip which was providing hydration and that the problems she experienced echoed those of her late father.

She said: “I know the nurses are stretched, but if the foundations are rocky, nothing else is right. They say things will change, but nothing changes.”

NHS Lothian has already introduced an action plan in response to the inspection report.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “When problems like this are uncovered the key is accountability, not simply words of reassurance. It’s worrying that, beyond the report, we now have families coming forward with these accounts of poor levels of care”

Melanie Hornett, NHS Lothian’s nurse director, said: “I would apologise again to patients who feel they have experienced care that was below the standard we expect. NHS Lothian takes all complaints very seriously and investigates each one thoroughly. The information gathered helps shape the services we provide. We would urge patients and relatives with any particular concerns or complaints to contact us.”

• Tell us your experiences – good or bad – of elderly care at the ERI. Call 0131-620 8733, e-mail or write to Evening News, Newsdesk, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS

Action plan to address concerns

NHS Lothian has produced an action plan to address the concerns raised in the Healthcare Improvement Scotland report. Included in the measures, many of which the health board says are already in place, are:

• Reinforcing standards for maintaining patients’ privacy and dignityn Replacing curtains that are too short around patients’ beds

• Educate staff about appropriate language, following reports that patients were referred to as numbers

• Roll out a new “peg system” to ensure patients being treated behind curtains are not interrupted, by pegging notices to curtains

• Aim to eliminate “boarding” patients – the practice of moving them from appropriate areas to free up beds

• Review nursing staffing levels

• Review provision of eating utensils to ensure patients get appropriate equipment

• Reiterate to staff to policy around preventing bed sores

‘Completely unacceptable’

The findings in the Healthcare Improvement Scotland report into the ERI were branded as “completely unacceptable” by Health Secretary Alex Neil.

Although patients surveyed were generally positive about the treatment they had received, inspectors found a series of serious concerns in several areas.

They had to step in on three separate occasions to preserve patients’ dignity at the hospital, including on one occasion when a woman with a learning disability was left partially naked in a busy area.

There were occasions when nurses would begin to care for a patient but be called away before they were finished – something that was a common complaint of the readers who contacted the Evening News. On a number of occasions, the inspectors had to intervene to make sure patients who needed help eating were given it. Some people who got in touch said members of their family had lost drastic amounts of weight as a result of a lack of nourishment.

Processes around risk assessments for nutritional care and hydration, and to determine whether patients were at risk of developing bed sores, were also criticised, while there was no information in care plans outlining individual needs for older people.