A grandmother died in agony after a fall when care staff failed to raise the alarm – despite her begging an emergency operator: ‘Help me!’
Frail Rose Belk, 93, was put through to a call centre operated by her local council after activating an accident alert button she wore on a lanyard.
In a harrowing two-minute recording, the pensioner – known as Dolly – is heard apparently saying ‘Help me!’ and moaning in pain.
But a call handler in a noisy office asks her to speak more loudly and then hangs up when she doesn’t understand Mrs Belk’s pleas.
The operator failed to call an ambulance or contact Mrs Belk’s family – meaning the pensioner was still lying on the floor of her home near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, when her son Andy, 64, made his daily visit later.
He dialled 999 and Mrs Belk was rushed to hospital, but she died that afternoon from the effects of the fall and a heart attack. Her son, a retired telecommunications engineer, has now received an apology and £1,000 in damages after taking Barnsley Council to court.
Mrs Belk, a retired school dinner lady, began paying £13 monthly for the home call service in 2010 after her husband Clive, a former colliery engineer, developed dementia. It promised a ‘24-hour, 365-day-per-year monitoring and emergency response service’.
After he died four years later, she kept up the service as she was becoming increasingly frail herself. ‘It gave her peace of mind,’ said her son. ‘She would say, “Don’t worry if anything happens to me, if I can’t get hold of you I can press the red button”.’
But a transcript of the exchange after she fell and pressed her panic button on May 19, 2018 – prepared by an audio expert ahead of the court hearing – shows how she was let down by the service.
After more than 30 seconds of waiting for someone to answer, the pensioner moans in pain while struggling to get the operator to understand her pleas.
It ends with the call handler telling Mrs Belk, ‘I’ll ring your son because I can’t hear you’ before asking her to agree by saying ‘yes or no’. The expert said Mrs Belk’s indistinct response was: ‘Help me!’
When the operator says, ‘OK, then. I’ll turn it off,’ Mrs Belk responds with what appears to be an insistent ‘No!’
The line is then disconnected. Mrs Belk’s son was not called, so he knew nothing of his mother’s accident until he arrived at her home and found her collapsed on the floor in a state of shock.
After he claimed for breach of contract on his mother’s behalf, the council settled without making any admission of liability. He was also awarded £626 costs.
Approving the settlement at Barnsley County Court, Deputy District Judge Christopher Birkby said: ‘It seems, from what I have heard, that Mrs Belk did suffer. Barnsley Council admitted the service was not what it could have been.
‘She suffered an extremely painful heart attack, and to suffer on one’s own for an hour and 17 minutes – the council could and should have dealt with this immediately.’
Outside court, Mr Belk said: ‘It was never about the money, it was about trying to get justice for my mother and get an apology from the council.
‘It was a shoddy service. The call operator should have called myself and an ambulance the second she realised my mother was unable to speak up. My mother would have been expecting help, having pressed her red button.
‘Lying on the floor in agony was a horrible thing for her to have to endure in the last few hours of her life.’
Jenny Platts, cabinet spokesman for health and adult social care at Barnsley Council, said: ‘We accept full responsibility for the settlement ruling and we regret that following Mrs Belk’s fall, the service failed to respond to the alert.
‘We have learned lessons from this, reviewed our processes and taken action, which includes refreshed training and a change in processes so operators do a final check with users before alerts are closed.’