Mystery surrounds tragic case of woman who swallowed plastic sheeting

Diana McManus died in Bangor Nursing Home in March last year
Diana McManus died in Bangor Nursing Home in March last year

The precise circumstances of how a disabled woman came to meet her death in a nursing home remain largely mysterious following an inquest.

After the testimony on Thursday of nine witnesses, including from police and medical experts, a coroner’s court in Belfast was unable to ascertain how or when Diana McManus had come to swallow a piece of plastic sheeting.

The 57-year-old, known as Donna to her family, had serious learning difficulties and was unable to talk, or to walk unaided – and had a particular problem with swallowing, requiring food to be puréed.

She died in March 2016 at Bangor Nursing Home in Manor Avenue in the town.

Her death was recorded as “probably aspiration (that is, breathing in) of gastric contents due to gastric obstruction by foreign body”.

Born in Belfast, the court was told that some time in 1964 she had ingested some type of toxic substance, causing her severe health problems.

She had been in Muckamore Abbey hospital until 1993, at which point she moved to the Bangor home.

Marianna D’Cruz, working at the home, had looked after her for about two years, and told Belfast Laganside Court despite her condition she had been “a very pleasant lady”.

She recalled starting a shift at 8pm on March 7 last year, giving her medicine and checking on her every hour.

But when she was checked at about 5.50am the next day, she was not breathing. She was pronounced dead at 7.03am.

The court was told that in the days running up to the incident, some discomfort in her abdomen had been reported, and she had vomited.

Doctors were called to assess her, but it was not thought there was anything severe enough to warrant taking her to hospital – with one doctor saying such a move may have been “quite a procedure” for Miss McManus.

Upon conducting a post-mortem, it was revealed that she had swallowed a rolled-up sheet of some kind of crisp brown plastic substance.

The roll was 12cm long (about 4.7 inches), and when unfurled the biggest bit was about 24 cm wide (9.4 inches) with a serrated edge – like the edge of a piece of cling film torn from its packet.

The shape of the serrated edge was not found to match anything in the home.

Solicitor Thomas Carey, acting for the family, said “there are three questions burning in their hearts” – what it was, how she swallowed it, and when.

Dr James Lyness, state pathologist, suggested that they had considered whether could have been some kind of sheeting to cover beds, or perhaps even a type of grease-proof paper. Ultimately, it could not be determined.

As to how she was able to swallow it when she had problems with solids, he said that he had known of a man with dementia who swallowed a teaspoon, and another person who swallowed a battery.

“People do manage to swallow large objects,” he said.

In all, in addition to Dr Lyness, a police constable, four doctors, two home staff and Miss McManus’s sister all gave evidence to the inquest.

Summing up her findings, coroner Suzanne Anderson said it had “not been possible to establish the exact nature or source of the plastic sheeting,” or when she swallowed it.

She had no history of doing such things, the coroner told the court.

Neither was there evidence that she had been “forcibly fed” the plastic.

Describing her as having been a “cheerful” character, the coroner dubbed her death “untimely” and extended her sympathies to the family – as did barrister David Sharpe, acting for the home.