Hospital Blames Death of Woman—Found after 17 Days in Locked Stairwell—on Alcoholism

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Lynne Spalding

San Francisco General Hospital still can’t explain how it failed to locate a missing patient in September who was eventually found dead in a locked stairwell 17 days later.

But the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner knows what killed her. Chronic alcohol abuse, or more precisely, “probable electrolyte imbalance with delirium (clinical sepsis)” from “complications of chronic ethanolism” (alcoholism). The coroner’s report (pdf) said she had an “altered mental status” for one or two weeks before checking into the hospital and was probably delirious on the day she disappeared.  

That was the diagnosis released last week and it did not sit well with the family of 57-year-old Lynne Spalding or their lawyer. “This woman died of exposure—either from starvation or dehydration,” attorney Haig Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle. “To suggest alcoholism was involved is an outrageous, gratuitous comment.”

He did not call the medical examiner delirious, but the family blames Spalding’s death on alleged malfeasance and neglect by the hospital. They denied that Spalding was an alcoholic or had a drinking problem. Harris has called for a grand jury investigation.

Family friend David Perry told NBC Bay Area, “Lynne was certainly not an alcoholic nor was she in any program that I was aware of.”

The British mother of two and longtime U.S. resident was the subject of an intensive search inside and outside the hospital after she disappeared in mid-September. The stairwell where she was found is rarely used for anything except as a fire escape and was apparently overlooked. Preliminary speculation is that she wandered away from her fifth floor room in a haze from medication and couldn’t get back through the self-locked, alarm-equipped door.  

But the investigation continues into how Spalding remained undetected for so long. She checked into the hospital with a urinary-tract infection, but had been experiencing weight loss and disorientation. Spalding went missing shortly thereafter and was gone for two days before a search began.

There are still conflicting accounts of the thoroughness of the search, but apparently no one looked in the stairwell after a hospital researcher reported seeing a woman’s body there on October 4. When found, she had been dead for days.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Attorney Angered at Report on S.F. General Patient’s Death (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

Medical Examiner: Woman Found in San Francisco Hospital Stairwell Died of Dehydration, Liver Failure (by Erin Ivie, San Jose Mercury News)

Hospital Can’t Explain How Patient Who Died in Stairwell Went Undetected for 17 Days (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Coroner’s Report on Lynne Spalding (San Francisco Medical Examiner) (pdf)

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