Hospital patient died after food got stuck in his throat

SINGAPORE - A hospital patient served watermelon as part of his dinner died after pieces of the fruit got stuck in his throat.

After Mr Kline George Verney, 65, was found unconscious in his bed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), a staff nurse managed to expel three pieces of watermelon, about 3cm long and 1.5cm thick, from his throat.

A doctor later found more watermelon and grains of rice between Mr Verney's vocal cords. Three more pieces were removed with a pair of forceps.

Last Friday (Nov 30), State Coroner Kamala Ponnampalam found Mr Kline's death in January last year to be an unfortunate misadventure.

Mr Kline was admitted to TTSH on Nov 28, 2016, for a head injury from a fall and placed on an "easy chew" diet as he had no teeth.

"TTSH places patients on 'easy chew' diets due to a variety of reasons, including limited chewing ability, swallowing impairment, a lack of dentition and dentures, or even just personal preference," said the state coroner.

On Dec 6, 2016, staff nurse Cao Cai Yun noted that Mr Verney had a full set of teeth and he told her they were his own.

A dietitian found him to be underweight after a review about a month later. It was then recommended that the medical team should consider switching him to a regular diet if there were no clinical contraindications.

Watermelon is served in small pieces to patients receiving regular diets, said the state coroner.

Ms Cao later looked through Mr Verney's notes for documents containing instructions from doctors or speech therapists but could not find any records stating that he required a specific diet.

As the staff nurse had observed that Mr Verney had "a full set of teeth and was independent in feeding with no swallowing impairment", she indicated in his documents that he was given a regular diet.

However, some of her colleagues recalled seeing him using dentures.

Mr Verney's daughter, who was not named in court documents, had confirmed that her father had a habit of eating very quickly and would swallow his food with minimal chewing.

On Jan 26 last year, he was served a normal meal with watermelon for dinner. He was found unresponsive at around 6pm. Despite the efforts to save him, he died about 1½ hours later.

An autopsy later showed there were also lumps of rice almost blocking his main bronchi, the passageway into the lungs.

The state coroner said that he died due to an acute airway obstruction by a foreign body.