Coroner ties hospital stairway death to alcoholism

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Associated Press

Posted on December 13, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 13 at 10:35 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A woman found dead in a locked stairwell 17 days after she went missing from her room at San Francisco General Hospital died accidentally, probably due to a chemical imbalance related to chronic alcohol abuse, the city medical examiner's office said Friday.

Lynne Spalding, 57, had been dead for days before she was found Oct. 8, San Francisco Assistant Medical Examiner Ellen Moffat said.

Spalding had been admitted to the hospital Sept. 19 with a urinary infection, and she also had an altered mental state for one to two months and weight loss for two weeks, Moffat's report said. Her laboratory test results were consistent with "alcoholic liver disease."

Two days after she was admitted, she disappeared from her hospital room. According to the coroner's report, Spalding was confused and delirious that day. She didn't know the day or time or even why she was in the hospital.

Her decomposing remains weren't found until 2 1/2 weeks later, on Oct. 8, when a maintenance worker walked down the stairwell during his quarterly inspection.

Spalding's death was an accident, the coroner's report said. The cause was listed as "probable electrolyte imbalance with delirium" due to "complications of chronic ethanolism."

David Perry, a family spokesman who knew Spalding for six years, said he had been pressing for the report's release for weeks. He also denied that Spalding ever had an alcohol problem.

"Lynne was certainly not an alcoholic nor was she in any program that I was aware of," he said.

According to the report, Spalding's dead body was clad in street clothes when it was discovered — including a black-and-white jacket, a black top, black pants, and a pair of black boots. There were no signs of injury.

An exact time of death was not determined.

Perry said he was disappointed that no time of death was released.

"The only issue is did she die on Sept. 21 or sometime later," he said. "If the answer is she died after Sept. 21, then her family and friends feel that Lynne Spalding was killed through the neglect and malfeasance of San Francisco General Hospital and the San Francisco Sheriff's Department."

In a statement released Friday, hospital spokesman Tristan Cook said a number of new measures had been put into place after Spalding's death, including daily stairwell checks and new training for security staff.

"Everyone here at San Francisco General is shocked and saddened by Ms. Spalding's loss," Cook said. "We have been doing everything we can to learn the facts and to ensure that it never happens again."

Several employees with the county sheriff's department, which provides hospital security, were reassigned after Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi acknowledged that a thorough search was never conducted for Spalding.

Although sheriff's deputies at the hospital did a "perimeter search" of the hospital's 24-acre campus within an hour of Spalding's disappearance, it was not until Sept. 30 that they attempted a more extensive search of the grounds, Mirkarimi said.

A request for a broader search came at a meeting a sheriff's supervisor had with hospital staff members including representatives of the risk management department, he said.

The next day, after it became clear that not all the stairwells used as fire exits had been searched, a supervisor ordered the stairwell searches to continue, yet "only about half the stairwells" ever were, he said.

Then, on Oct. 4, a hospital staff member told the sheriff's department someone had reported seeing a body in a locked stairwell of the building where Spalding had been a patient. A sheriff's dispatcher told hospital officials the department would respond, but "there is no indication that any one was dispatched to that stairwell."

A hospital spokeswoman said the witness who reported seeing Spalding's body in the stairwell Oct. 4 is a University of California San Francisco researcher. She said he was interviewed by authorities, but the substance of that interview has not been made public.

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