Choking deaths are the fourth leading cause of deaths in nursing homes. They are also preventable. Why do so many nursing home residents die of choking deaths then? The answer is shockingly simple. The quality of care in many of America’s skilled nursing facilities is at an all-time low and getting worse.
Chronic understaffing, unqualified staff and poor training is directly responsible for the thousands of preventable deaths each year in nursing homes. Our nursing home abuse lawyers are working hard to hold nursing homes accountable. By taking these cases to court, the families of lost loved ones can achieve justice. And these cases force nursing homes to address these tragedies so they hopefully don’t occur again.
We have talked to many nursing home workers who tell us that their facilities typically fail to fill vacant shifts or assign too many patients to a single staff member.
Dysphagia and Nursing Home Choking Deaths
The medical term for having trouble swallowing is dysphagia. Well over half the people who die each year from choking are over the age of 74. Trouble swallowing can also call aspiration pneumonia, a condition that occurs when food or fluid “goes down the wrong pipe” and enters the lungs.
A number of medical issues can make seniors more prone to problems with swallowing and chocking. For example, dementia and Alzheimer’s have a direct impact on difficulties in swallowing. One study revealed that 86% of dementia patients have difficulties swallowing or eating. In severe dementia cases, 93% of patients also experienced dysphagia. (Dementia patients are also at higher risk for malnutrition and dehydration, two more signs of nursing home abuse.)
Strokes, MS, brain injuries, esophageal cancer, Parkinson’s, radiation treatment and yes, even old age can also increase the risk of choking. (As we get older the muscles that affect chewing and swallowing become weaker.)
A final cause of choking deaths is loose fitting or improperly maintained dentures, once again something within the control of the nursing home.
Nursing Homes Have a Duty to Prevent Choking Deaths
Nursing homes have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their residents. That duty includes proper staffing and training in how to respond to choking emergencies.
Their duty doesn’t stop there. Nursing homes must also insure that residents are properly monitored while eating or drinking.
Proper Training for Nursing Home Employees
Nurses know the warning signs of dysphagia and choking. These include:
Frequent chocking during meals
Coughing or gagging while eating
Constantly clearing the throat
Regurgitation (bringing food back up)
Grimace or painful expression when eating
Holding food in the mouth
Eating too fast
Unexpected weight loss
Hoarseness / Change in voice
Sensation of food being stuck in the throat (patients unable to communicate may touch their breast bone or throat when eating)
Taking longer to eat
Chewing over and over
Although nursing homes are trained to recognize these red flags, often they are too busy or patient care is left to CNAs. (More on that below.)
If a patient suddenly grabs her throat, is unable to talk, shows sign of panic or is visibly chocking, a full choking emergency is underway. Nurses have training in dealing with these emergencies. Once again, it usually isn’t a skilled nurse that is present when patients are eating.
The training necessary to be a nursing home worker varies state to state. Although the federal government calls nursing homes “skilled nursing facilities” they are often anything but.
Federal law mandates just 75 hours of training to become a CNA (“Certified Nursing Assistant). And even then, nursing homes have 4 months to get new CNA hires certified. About half the states have additional training requirements.
We expect a tremendous amount from nursing home staff, yet the minimum training requirements are shockingly low. Ditto for staffing levels.
Although both the federal government and states dictate minimum staffing levels, we know nursing homes that cut corners by listing office staff as fulfilling staffing requirements.
A facility’s director of nursing or an HR person that happens to be a CNA should not be counted as floor staffing if they are not physically on the floor and interacting with patients.
What Should Nursing Homes Do to Prevent Choking Deaths
The first step in preventing choking deaths is conducting an accurate and complete patient assessment. Every new patient must be assessed. That is the law.
Part of that assessment should include tests to see how well a patient swallows and a risk analysis for choking. The duty to assess doesn’t stop upon admission.
Nursing home staff should continually assess patients, especially if there has been a change in their medical condition.
The second step involves adequate training and staffing. Simply because a nursing home worker has a CNA certificate doesn’t make him qualified to respond to a choking emergency. Ditto for a worker tasked with monitoring dozens of patients while alone on the floor.
The third step is treatment. Preventing choking deaths involves more than monitoring. There are a number of steps that facilities can take to address dysphagia. These include:
• Changing diets
• Special dysphagia diets (softened or pureed foods)
• Dilation treatments (widening of the esophagus)
The fourth and final step in preventing nursing home chocking deaths is having a medical emergency plan. Every person working with patients needs proper training to deal with choking emergencies. When seconds count, there isn’t time to find a nurse working in another unit or another floor. Facilities that don’t have a choking emergency plan are flirting with disaster, a disaster that is 100% preventable.
If a loved one or family member suffered a choking death, your first step should be contacting us!
Loved One Die of a Nursing Home Choking Death?
All of us are going to die. That doesn’t give nursing homes the right to ignore the health, safety and well-being of residents. Our family members deserve proper care and dignity. Certain injuries in nursing homes are totally preventable. Falls, bed sores and choking deaths are at the top of the list.
If a loved one or family member died under suspicious circumstances or died from a preventable incident, call us. We and our network of nursing home abuse lawyers prosecute cases across the United States. For more information, contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 833-201-1555. Cases are handled on a contingent fee basis meaning you never owe us anything unless we recover money for you. And all consultations are confidential. (Not ready to call and just looking for general information? Visit our nursing home abuse page or download our free eBook on How to Sue a Nursing Home for Negligence or Abuse.
Case Study – Antonio Mares
In November of 2012, Antonio Mares was convalescing at the Center for Hispanic Elderly in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. His physician ordered a special diet because of Antonio’s high risk of choking. He was supposed to be monitored while he ate and fed only soft food. Unfortunately, a CNA gave him a regular meal and then left him alone to eat. The results were tragic.
Antonio began choking on his food. He pushed his emergency call button for help, but no one responded. When the CNA returned, Antonio’s condition was dire. Although she tried to administer the Heimlich maneuver, she allegedly did so incorrect. Antonio Mares became another tragic and preventable nursing home choking death statistic.
Unable to get answers, Antonio’s family sued. Names as defendants were the Center for Hispanic Elderly, Premier Healthcare Management and many of the staff on duty or responsible for Antonio’s care. The family claimed the nursing assistant fed Antonio the wrong diet, failed to monitor him while eating, failed to properly perform the Heimlich maneuver and because of understaffing, failed to answer his emergency alarm or respond to his choking emergency. Although denying any wrongdoing, the nursing home settled for a significant sum of money last year.
After the settlement, Antonio’s daughter Isela released a statement, “Our family was robbed of the opportunity to properly say goodbye to my father, and while no sum of money will ever make up for our loss, we are hopeful that this settlement will incentivize the nursing home to make some needed changes.”
Anyone who has trouble swallowing is at risk for choking death. The risk is especially severe for elderly nursing home patients and those suffering from strokes, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and esophageal cancer. In nursing homes, they are preventable. If a loved one suffered from a chocking death or died from another preventable incident, contact us immediately. We and our network of nursing home abuse lawyers prosecute choking death cases across the United States. For more information, contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 833-201-1555. Our nursing home neglect cases are handled on a contingent fee basis meaning you never owe us anything unless we recover money for you. And all consultations are confidential. (Not ready to call and just looking for general information? Visit our nursing home neglect page or download our free eBook on How to Sue a Nursing Home for Negligence or Abuse.