Hospice patient thought dead 'gasped for air' in body bag at Iowa funeral home

A hospice facility in Iowa is on the hook for a US$10,000 fine after a state agency discovered it pronounced one of its patients dead a little too early.

A 66-year-old woman with early-onset dementia was presumed dead at Glen Oaks Alzheimer’s Special Care Center in Urbandale, and transported to a funeral home on Jan. 3. But hours later she was discovered gasping for breath inside her body bag, according to a Wednesday report from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.

The woman, who was referred to as Resident #1 in the report, had been admitted to hospice care on Dec. 28, 2022 due to “senile degeneration of the brain.”

From Dec. 28 to Jan. 2, Resident #1’s condition steadily declined until she began experiencing mild seizures that afternoon. Her primary physician was contacted and hospice staff were instructed to increase her dosage of “morphine sulfate and lorazepam concentrate due to active decline.”

In an interview with a caregiver at the facility, inspection agents learned that at around 6 a.m. on Jan. 3, Resident #1’s “mouth was open, her eyes were fixed, and there were no breath sounds.”

The care worker said she was unable to locate her patient’s pulse with a stethoscope and noted her abdomen wasn’t moving, indicating she wasn’t breathing.

“She felt Resident #1 had passed away,” the report reads. “She notified Resident #1’s family member and the on call hospice nurse. Hospice agreed to call the funeral home and did so.”

A funeral worker came to pick up Resident #1 and noted no signs of life either. They placed the 66-year-old woman inside a cloth bag on a gurney and zipped it closed.

Less than an hour later, “funeral home staff unzipped the bag and observed Resident #1’s chest moving and she gasped for air.”

The funeral home called 911 and the hospice centre. When medics arrived, they recorded the woman had a pulse but noted no eye movement or verbal responses. The patient was taken to the emergency room for examination.

Eventually, Resident #1 was returned to hospice care and two days later she died with her family by her side, the state report says.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals has fined the facility $10,000 for the incident, the maximum allowed under Iowa law, for failure to provide “dignified treatment and care at end of life.”

The facility’s executive director said in a statement to NBC that they “care deeply for our residents and remain fully committed to supporting their end-of-life care.”

“All employees undergo regular training so they can best support end-of-life care and the death of our residents.”

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