Mother of 2 dies after drinking too much water while medical staff was distracted by phones, inquest finds

A mother-of-two who was admitted to a hospital in England following a mental health breakdown, died after drinking too much water while staff were distracted by their phones, a recently concluded inquest into her death has found. 

Michelle Whitehead, 45, was admitted to the Millbrook Mental Health Unit in Sutton-in-Ashfield near her home in May 2021, BBC News reported. 

She began drinking water excessively while at the unit and slipped into a coma after reaching dangerously low sodium levels, which led to brain swelling, the investigation found. 

Despite psychogenic polydipsia being a well-known psychiatric disorder marked by excessive water drinking, the staff failed to diagnose Whitehead and she continued to have unmonitored access to water. 

She was tranquilized, then slipped into a coma, but staff believed she had fallen asleep. 

The Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Millbrook Mental Health Unit, said staff failed on several levels, including "inadequate monitoring" while being "distracted by the use of their personal mobile telephones, an activity which was prohibited on the ward," discontinuing monitoring hours after she was tranquilized when she should have been watched until she was up again, and a delay in the duty doctor arriving and waiting 10 minutes to let paramedics inside the building, the investigation found. 

She died two days later after being transported to a hospital. 

"On behalf of the trust, I once again extend our sincerest condolences and apologies to the family and friends of Michelle Whitehead for their loss," Ifti Majid, chief executive of the Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said in a statement, according to the BBC. "We are considering the findings of the jury and the coroner. We acknowledge that there were aspects of care which were not of the quality they should have been and will address the concerns raised so that the experience for patients now and in future is improved."

Whitehead’s husband Michael Whitehead told BBC News, "When Michelle [seemingly] fell asleep, staff should have realized something was very wrong. Had they acted earlier Michelle would have been taken to ICU and put on a drip. That would have saved her life. By the time they realized what was happening, the same course of action was far too late."

He called Whitehead "warm, caring and easy to love," noting she had previously quit her job to be a fulltime carer for one of their sons who suffered from Down syndrome. 

"Michelle was an amazing person, and the last few days of her life do not represent who she was," he added.

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