Metro-East News

Authorities learned of woman’s death from funeral home, not nursing facility

Officials investigating the Thursday death of an 85-year-old woman at a Belleville nursing home were first notified of the fatality when they got a call from a Montgomery County funeral home.

St. Clair County coroner’s investigators say they got the call from the funeral home to retrieve the body of Juanita Simmons, who died at Midwest Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center. An autopsy was scheduled to be conducted Friday afternoon, according to a St. Clair County deputy coroner.

“We were told by the funeral home that there was something unusual about it,” said Deputy Coroner Dean Darnall.

Darnall said he was told that Simmons’ body was found by staff at the nursing home still strapped into a wheelchair and at the bottom of stairs. Darnall said the first his office heard about the death was through a phone call from the Montgomery County funeral home, located more than an hour away from Belleville.

The director of the funeral home said he was contacted by Simmons’ daughter, who told him, “Mom took a fall.”

The director of the funeral home said concern arose when he called the St. Clair County Coroner’s Office to ask what type of death certificate was to be issued. If the death was due to natural causes, then a physician signs it, he said. But if it was an accident, a coroner’s investigator would have to sign it.

The funeral director said he was told by the coroner’s administrative assistant that she didn’t know what type of death certificate would be issued — the type signed by a physician or the type signed by a coroner — so he requested that the body be returned to Belleville by the coroner’s office.

Darnell said an investigator from the Illinois Department of Public Health was investigating Friday.

Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said that in the case of a death at a nursing home, a state investigator can be sent within 24 hours. Arnold, who said she could not talk specifically about any investigation, said that a department investigation is focused on whether there is a danger to other residents of the home, and that any criminal investigation would be left to local police or coroners.

St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone said Simmons’ death is being investigated as accidental.

Simmons’ granddaughter, Tonya Adams of Villa Hills, said during a telephone interview Friday night that staff at the nursing home was negligent in their duties and that the family was “definitely” planning to take legal action.

“She had no business at the bottom of a stairway,” Adams said, calling whatever circumstances leading to her grandmother’s body being left unattended “a serious lapse.”

Christy Utterback, vice president of operations for Integrity Communities, which operates the facility, declined to comment. The home is the former Calvin Johnson Nursing Home.

Becky Garcia, administrator of the nursing home, said: “My sincere condolences to the family. I have no further comment.”

In a recent review of nursing homes across the country, Midwest Respiratory and Rehabilitation received a one-star rating on a five-star scale, and the facility had 36 “health deficiciences” listed. The magazine reported that the U.S. health deficiency average is 6.8 and the Illinois average is 7.3.

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