Woman, 75, died in freak choking incident

AN ELDERLY woman suffered irreversible brain damage after a freak choking incident at a sheltered housing unit, an inquest heard yesterday.

Elizabeth Dougherty-Tobin, aged 75, had lived at O’Connell Court, a sheltered housing unit on Cork’s Windmill Road for people over 50 with mental health problems, since 1998.

She was on medication for schizophrenia, but was otherwise healthy, alert, active and mobile, Cork Coroner’s Court was told.

She died in hospital on October 30 last, several weeks after apparently choking on food after having her teatime meal in the unit on September 4.

Care staff said she finished her tea at around 5pm and walked unaided a short distance to a chair and sat down. But her head suddenly rolled forward and she slumped in the chair.

Care staff became alarmed but said there was no apparent sign, that Ms Doughtery-Tobin was choking.

They alerted senior staff member Catherine Cogan who rushed from her office to the dining area.

She told the inquest that Ms Doughtery-Tobin was limp, unresponsive, the left side of her face was blue and she could find no pulse.

“I thought she was dead and I dialled 999 immediately,” she said.

Staff placed Ms Doughtery-Tobin in a wheelchair and were taking her to a nearby room when ambulance crews arrived. They performed CPR for 20 minutes and revived and stabilised Ms Doughtery-Tobin before rushing her to the South Infirmary Victoria Hospital.

A chest x-ray revealed she had choked on food which had overflowed from her oesophagus into her airway. Her medication may have dulled her gag reflex, the inquest heard.

Ms Doughtery-Tobin suffered extensive brain damage after she was starved of oxygen during the choking incident. She never regained consciousness.

A post mortem revealed no sign of heart attack, stroke or clot. Cause of death was bronchial pneumonia on a background of hypoxic brain injury secondary to an aspiration or choking event.

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane recorded a verdict of accidental death.

She described the death as very tragic and “completely unexpected”.

She extended her sympathies to Ms Doughtery-Tobin’s family and to the staff of O’Connell Court where the victim had lived happily for almost 10 years.

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