Posted on December 6, 2023

Poor English Contributed to Woman’s Stair Lift Death – Inquest

Emma Elgee and Ruth Bradley, BBC, December 5, 2023

A woman died after getting trapped under a stair lift with her care staff unable to tell 999 what had happened because they could not speak English well enough, an inquest has heard.

Barbara Rymell, 91, who had dementia, died in Ashley House care home in Langport, Somerset, on 8 August 2022.

Her daughter, Elaine Curtis, 67, said she was left “frantic” trying to work out what happened to her mother.

The coroner said care staff must speak English well to prevent further deaths.

During the course of the inquest it transpired the two carers on duty were not native English speakers, one was Romanian and the other Indian.

One of the workers had not passed a Secure English Language Test, which is a requirement for a work visa, so was not qualified or permitted to work in the UK.

It meant that the severity of the incident and the level of urgency needed to free Mrs Rymell was not passed on to call handlers who then selected the incorrect emergency response in the first 999 call.

In a report Samantha Marsh, senior coroner for Somerset, said Mrs Rymell was “left unattended on a mechanical stair lift” even though a risk assessment had said she should not use it.

She fell off the lift at an “awkward angle” which impacted her breathing and meant care home staff could not help her.

She was pronounced dead upon arrival of paramedics, who did not know the severity of the incident when the first 999 call was made.

The coroner noted that the carer did not appear to understand the difference between “bleeding” and “breathing”, as well as “alert” and “alive”.

‘Your mother is dead’

Mrs Curtis said the language barrier meant that the care home staff could not tell her anything more about what had happened to her mum.

“They [care home staff] rang me and their English was very broken, they asked if I was Elaine Curtis and I said ‘yes’ and they said ‘your mother is dead’.

Mrs Curtis said she was “left for four hours absolutely frantic trying to get hold of the home”.

“I waited and waited for a call back – we didn’t hear anything and then at midnight the police came round to break the news to me,” she said.

After the inquest into Mrs Rymell’s death concluded Mrs Marsh raised concerns about the ability of the carers on duty to speak English.

Mrs Marsh said that in her opinion action was needed and she has sent a report to the Department of Health and Social Care.

“Vulnerable people, by very definition, are unable to often appreciate the need for help, take steps to keep themselves safe and/or summon help for themselves when they need it,” she said.

“By being unable to speak the native language of England with any proficiency, I am concerned that deaths will continue to arise where those who are young, disabled, suffering from a mental impairment or who are elderly.”

Law needs to change

Ms Curtis said it should be “necessary” that care workers have good English and hoped the law would change to reflect that.

“If this law comes through, that would be great, I’d be happy because I would hate this to happen to someone else’s family,” she said.

The inquest, which finished on 21 November, recorded Mrs Rymell’s death as misadventure.

In a statement, South West Care Homes, which runs Ashley House, extended their sympathies and said they worked closely with authorities over the “isolated incident”.

They said: “We strive always to offer the best possible care to all our residents, and since Mrs Rymell’s death we have instigated a range of management and auditing improvements to further enhance the care we provide at Ashley House.”