SAN FRANCISCO — The family of a woman who vanished from her San Francisco hospital room and was found dead 17 days later in an emergency stairwell is angered by reports that a hospital employee stepped over her several days before the body attracted the attention of investigators, family representatives said.
Haig Harris, a lawyer representing the children of Lynne Spalding, 57, said he was told that the hospital employee saw a woman lying in the exterior stairwell and reported it to a nurse. The nurse notified the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, which handles security for the city-owned hospital and previously had searched the grounds for Spalding.
But days passed before another hospital employee noticed the woman and got the attention of authorities, Harris said.
Even if the hospital employee who stepped over Spalding mistook her for a sleeping homeless person, someone should have checked to make sure she was OK, Harris said.
He questioned why hospital employees didn't suspect a woman on a fifth floor stairwell might be a patient and whether the Sheriff's Department even investigated the nurse's report.
A sheriff's spokeswoman said she could not comment until a probe is completed, and that she did not know when that would be.
"This is a hospital," Harris said. "Why didn't somebody put their hand on the body to see if there was a pulse?"
The San Francisco Chronicle, citing unidentified sources, first disclosed the incident. The newspaper's account said an "orderly" had twice stepped over a woman lying in the spot where Spalding was later discovered. Harris said he received similar information in an "anonymous email."
David Perry, a family spokesman, said he was told the employee was a janitor.
"The family is angry, frustrated and out of patience," Perry said. "While we understand the need for a thorough investigation, it has now been one month and three days since Lynne Spalding went missing.... The time for answers and real solutions that will protect lives of future patients is long past due."
The hospital has refused to comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the San Francisco police and sheriff. A source familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because it is still being investigated, did not dispute the newspaper's account but said the hospital does not classify any of its employees as orderlies and that the incident may have occurred on different date.
Spalding went to the emergency room of San Francisco General on Sept. 19 suffering from a urinary tract infection, Perry said.
The hospital said she was improving and was listed in fair condition when she vanished, leaving her cellphone behind. The hospital said a nurse had checked on Spalding at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, and her bed was empty 15 minutes later.
The hospital, which is generally highly regarded, said it notified the Sheriff's Department, and a search failed to locate her. Her family filed a missing person report and distributed fliers throughout the city.
Both Harris and Perry said they still do not know whether Spalding changed into her street clothes before leaving her room. The only personal possession the hospital gave to her daughter was her phone, Perry said.
Spalding's family has been told that the longtime San Francisco resident did not die from foul play, but the coroner has yet to reveal the cause of her death.
"This is an investigation by the sheriff's office over why they didn't find this person when she was obviously out there dying for a period of time," Harris said.
Octavio Jimenez, an investigator for the San Francisco Medical Examiner, said the coroner has determined when Spalding died but could not release the information until the investigation is concluded.
Harris said the family is asking investigators to make public their findings as they get them. "They should report these investigations in real time so the public has a sense of what is really going on," Harris said. "There is no question that people die in hospitals, but not under these circumstances."
The door to the stairwell that Spalding is believed to have entered sounded an alarm when opened and was locked from the outside. The alarm shut off automatically after the door was closed.
Since the incident, the hospital has changed the alarms to sound until they are turned off with a key.
Perry provided an email from a woman who said she got locked in the same stairwell in June. The woman said she had been visiting her son at the hospital and decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. She entered the stairwell without realizing it was an emergency exit, she wrote.
She walked down to the ground level, but the door sounded an alarm when she opened it so she slammed it shut. She said she then went back upstairs and pounded on windows to get someone's attention before a nurse finally let her back in. She said no one responded to any alarm.