HSE stonewalling on inquiry into 2006 nursing home death

When the investigation into the death of Hannah Comber at a north Cork hospital got under way seven years ago, the HSE promised to publish its findings “in the interests of her family, public confidence in their services, as well as openness and transparency”.

The independent investigation commenced its work in Aug 2006 and there is still no sign of the findings being published, despite the fact it was reported it was expected to conclude in 2009.

The HSE is now not replying to inquiries from the Irish Examiner about where the investigation stands, or if it will abide by its promise to make it public.

Ms Comber, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been a patient at Heatherside Hospital, near Buttevant, for 15 years. She died in June 2006 when she slipped down a chair and was strangled with a restraining belt.

It emerged in the weeks following her death that a report from the hospital given to gardaí failed to mention that Ms Comber had accidentally slipped in the chair while strapped into it.

It was not until the postmortem was undertaken by assistant State pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster that it was revealed she died as a result of asphyxiation when she slipped down the chair and was strangled by the restraining belt.

In Jan 2007, the Irish Examiner reported that two nurses and a care worker were suspended a week after Ms Comber died, but the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) said they had the full backing of the union and at that stage they had yet to be spoken to by the investigation team.

An INO spokes-person added that she expected the staff to be reinstated after that process had been completed, especially as they had already been exonerated by a Garda probe.

Gardaí sent a file to the DPP but his office decided there was no case to answer.

An inquest was held on April 4, 2007, into her death by deputy coroner for north Cork Dr John Burke. He ruled the frail pensioner died by misadventure.

Dr Burke said there was no written policy in the hospital on the use of restraint chairs and for dealing with sudden death,

He said he would be contacting Heatherside Hospital management with recommendations to prevent similar tragedies occurring.

In May 2009, it was reported that a draft report into Ms Comber’s death had been completed.

In reply to a Dáil question from TD Seán Sherlock, then Minister for State at the Department of Health, Áine Brady, said that the draft report was being circulated “for due process” to the staff on duty the night Ms Comber died to afford them the opportunity to comment.

She said at the time that she expected the process to be concluded by mid-2009.

In Sep 2010 the health watchdog HIQA (Health Information Quality Authority) expressed serious concern over the suitability of Heatherside Hospital’s structure and the layout of the building.

In late April 2011 the facility closed and all its 38 patients were transferred to St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital in Gurranabraher.

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