Patient died after fruit got stuck in throat

A hospital patient who was 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 on his bed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), a staff nurse managed to expel three pieces of watermelon, each about 3cm long and 1.5cm thick, from his throat.

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

State Coroner Kamala Ponnampalam last Friday found Mr Verney's death in January last year to be an unfortunate misadventure.

Mr Verney was admitted to TTSH on Nov 28, 2016, for a head injury from a fall and was placed on an "easy chew" diet.

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

About a month later, a dietitian found him to be underweight after a review.

It was recommended that the medical team 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 to see if there were 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2018, with the headline 'Patient died after fruit got stuck in throat'. Print Edition | Subscribe