REFUSING to let her disabilities get the better of her, Nicola Jones was a keen swimmer and loved to ride horses.
But now she faces spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair after suffering agonising third-degree burns when she was scalded in the bath at her care home.
Nicola, who has severe learning difficulties, was left without any flesh on her ankles and had to have all of her toes amputated after carer Sharon Dunlop failed to check the temperature of the water.
Speaking to the News after Dunlop was ordered to carry out 160 hours of unpaid work for breaching health and safety laws, her dad Dennis Jones said his 34-year-old daughter had been to “hell and back”.
The traumatic impact of the horrific injuries has taken its toll on Nicola’s personality – and she now faces having her right foot amputated.
At Livingston Sheriff Court yesterday, national care home charity Real Life Options was fined £20,000, a sum Mr Jones described as a “drop in the ocean” when compared with the impact on his vulnerable daughter’s life.
And he revealed that he and his wife Angela were initially told that Nicola – who had lived at the Bathgate home for 14 years – had only suffered a minor injury.
“We got a phone call saying ‘Nicola has got a wee burn in the bath’, and then it turned out she got 42 per cent burns – the worst kind you can get. Her shins and ankles were melted,” he said. “They put her into an induced coma.”
The court heard that colleagues who came to Dunlop’s assistance claimed they “could feel the heat coming from the bathroom”.
Mr Jones said: “You don’t want to be bitter, my main concern in life is Nicola. Unfortunately, she’s been to hell and back. She was completely able, compared to now. Physically she was fine, she used to go horse-riding and swimming.”
Nicola spent months in the care of plastic surgeon Dan Widdowson at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, before periods of intense rehabilitation at the Astley Ainslie in Edinburgh.
The treatment was particularly difficult for Nicola, who has never been comfortable around doctors or in hospitals, and this has had a lasting impact.
Her right foot is “too badly melted to be saved”, so Nicola, who now lives in Kirkliston, will soon face an amputation.
“That’s her next challenge,” her father said. “She’s not what she was before. She had a cheeky wee way about her and confidence, for someone with special needs. But that disappeared because she was getting three or four blood tests every day. It was stressful.
“Nicola would have been dead if not for Mr Widdowson and his team at St John’s.”
In the wake of the horrific incident, Mr and Mrs Jones are keen to raise awareness about a thermostatic mixing valve which could prevent anyone else going through the pain that Nicola has endured.
“The worst that can happen to you is that it switches off if there’s a fault and you have a cold shower or bath,” said Mr Jones.
The court was told a thermostat in the immersion heater had failed, causing scalding water to reach the taps.
However, 41-year-old Dunlop was at fault as she failed to test the temperature of the water before allowing Nicola to step into the bath, in an incident described by Sheriff Peter Hammond as a “serious and reprehensible breach of care”.
Due to her condition, Nicola was unable to communicate the danger she was in.
She said “hot” when she stepped into the scalding bathwater but sat down before Dunlop could realise what was happening and help her out.
Nicola’s screams of agony attracted the attention of other carers at the Gideon Street care home in Bathgate, who rushed in to help drag her out of the water. She was taken to hospital, where she had operations to amputate all ten toes and remove the damaged skin and flesh from her ankles.
Staff members were supposed to check the water temperature before residents bathed, and to keep a record of the checks, but Real Life Options had not provided written instructions.
Dunlop, of Drummond Place, Blackridge, earlier admitted breaching Health and Safety laws on August 13, 2013.
Solicitor advocate Raymond McMenamin, defending Dunlop, told the court she had lost her job as a result of her “simple error”. He said: “This is a most tragic case and the greatest tragedy is that of the injury and consequences suffered by Nicola Jones.”
Dunlop was sentenced to carry out 160 hours of unpaid work within ten months as an alternative to prison.
Sheriff Hammond said Dunlop had been unaware of the thermostat failure, but he told her: “[Nicola] was left with a devastating legacy from these injuries and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. You knew you were dealing with a vulnerable adult and failed to take reasonable and proper precautions yourself to check the water temperature.”
A Health and Safety Executive probe found that no risk assessment was in place for exposure to scalding water and the thermometers provided in the home were inadequate.
Yorkshire-based Real Life Options, which runs hundreds of care homes across the UK, pleaded guilty to breaching section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, 1974.
Solicitor advocate John McGovern said the company had apologised to Nicola and her family and had since bought hundreds of scoop thermometers to test water temperatures.
HSE inspector Hazel Dobb said: “The injuries sustained by Nicola Jones were easily preventable. Employers should ensure that their staff are provided with a thermometer and training in the safety aspects of bathing or showering people for whom they provide personal care.”
Brian Hutchinson, chief executive of Real Life Options, said: “This was a tragic accident that should never have happened. We are deeply sorry for the pain and distress caused to Ms Jones and her family.
“Since the issue of improvement notices in 2013, Real Life Options has co-operated fully with the Health and Safety Executive, responding quickly to ensure all best practice protocols are firmly in place.”