Name: Ronnie Derrick
Died: December 2, 2012
Age at death: 47
Cause of death: “Sudden cardiac death”; overheating.
Location: Greeneville, Tennessee, USA
Ronnie was a resident at a group home. One morning, he was found dead in his bed at the group home. Staff who found him dead noted the “extreme heat” in the room, which they estimated to be over 100 degrees (38 C). The heating system in his room had malfunctioned. The autopsy concluded that Mr. Derrick had suffered “sudden cardiac death”–an event in which the heart stops with very little warning, usually associated with heart disease.
Staff claim that Mr. Derrick was “free to leave the room”, with the implication that because he did not leave the room, he must have been comfortable. However, Mr. Derrick had removed articles of clothing before his death, so it is obvious that he was not, in fact, comfortable.
Mr. Derrick was unable to explain to staff what was bothering him, though he was able to express general distress and take care of his own basic needs.
Staff did not take Mr. Derrick’s core body temperature when he was found dead, nor did they measure the temperature in the room.
The conclusion drawn was that Mr. Derrick had died of natural causes, and that the group home was not at fault.
However, this editor would like to note that Mr. Derrick did have a known history of heart problems, including hypertension and high blood cholesterol. It is also known that people with heart problems are at a much increased risk of heat stroke. When the temperature increases, the body responds by sweating. This results in a depletion of the sodium and potassium needed for the heart to keep beating. If Mr. Derrick was on beta blockers or diuretics for his high blood pressure, those medications would have interfered with his ability to regulate his body temperature. If not, by age 47, his high blood pressure would have begun to damage his arteries. Poor circulation associated with heart problems would also have made it more difficult for his body to cool down.
Editor’s note: Whether Mr. Derrick died of heart failure or of heat stroke is irrelevant, since either one would have been, ultimately, caused by the extreme heat in his room. As a non-verbal resident of a group home, Mr. Derrick’s reluctance to leave his room could have been due to any number of causes other than feeling comfortable enough to stay: He might have been following a rule that, “At night, we stay in our rooms.” He might have been too afraid of breaking his routine to leave. He might have had a history of being forced to go back to his room if he left at night, and felt that leaving would be futile. Even had he wanted to leave the room, among the primary symptoms of heat stroke are disorientation, confusion, and fatigue–symptoms which might have made him too delirious to leave his room. His case is reminiscent of that of Bryan Nevins, who did not leave an overheated van due to his tendency to be very compliant.
In summary: The staff at Mr. Derrick’s group home knew he had heart problems. They either knew, or should have known, that heart problems make a person vulnerable to heat stroke. Poor maintenance led to an extreme temperature in Mr. Derrick’s room, which he was most likely unable to leave due to a combination of autistic traits and heat-related confusion. When Mr. Derrick’s heart stopped and he was found dead, staff did not check either his temperature or the temperature of the room.
The coroner’s verdict: Natural death. My verdict: Neglect.
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