Metro-East News

Family wants answers in death of woman in wheelchair at nursing home

The granddaughter of an 85-year-old woman who was found dead at a Belleville nursing home in a wheelchair at the bottom of stairs says her family wants answers.

The granddaughter, Tonya Adams, said Saturday that she and an aunt plan to “meet with whoever we have to meet with to find out what happened.”

Adams said one of the main concerns her family has in the death of Juanita Simmons is why staff at the Midwest Rehabilitation and Respiratory Center on North 17th Street did not contact police when the frail woman’s body was found, and instead called a funeral home located more than an hour away. Procedure in an accidental death at a nursing home usually requires that police and a coroner be immediately notified.

“I think that’s what everybody is trying to find out,” said Adams, who said another concern is how her grandmother, who she said had dementia, was allowed in her wheelchair on a floor where the door to the stairs was apparently left unlocked.

“That should never have happened,” Adams said during a telephone interview Saturday. Adams said 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 added, calling whatever circumstances led to her grandmother being left unattended “a serious lapse.”

St. Clair County Deputy Coroner Dean Darnall, who attended an autopsy of Simmons’s body on Friday, said no immediate cause of death could be determined but that the physician said, “The investigation is ongoing,” and pending further testing.

The St. Clair County coroner’s office was first notified of the fatality when the office got a call from a Montgomery County funeral home.

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

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 accidental death, 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 retrieved by the coroner’s office.

Darnall 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 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.

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

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