St. Paul Woman Looks to Improve Hospital Safety After Mom's Fatal Fall

Updated: 03/28/2013 6:37 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer

A St. Paul woman is on a crusade to improve patient safety at hospitals. She's created a new foundation to bring awareness to the issue.

Linda Axelrod's mother died after a mysterious fall at a Minnesota hospital in 2005. Seven years later, new data indicates hospital falls are increasing statewide. Many more falls simply aren't being reported.

As for Olivia Geller, Axelrod's mother, she liked to bake, and cook, and go to the casino. "She was just a wonderful person," Axelrod said.

But at age 79, Geller checked into St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul with pneumonia. Days later, she was found on the floor of her room with a severe head injury, bleeding and naked.

"She went into a coma and all we could do was watch her die," Axelrod said.

What followed were years of controversy, as Axelrod fought to find out the truth about her mother's suspicious fall. Geller's body was even exhumed. But to this day, the cause of death remains undetermined.

"Unfortunately there were no answers," Axelrod said.

Geller's family sued the hospital and the case was mediated out of court. Terms of the agreement prevent both sides from speaking publicly about it but Axelrod has used the settlement money to start a foundation in both her parents names: The Olivia and Howard Geller Foundation for patient safety.

"The only thing I can do now is try to let people know about the dangers that lurk in hospitals," Axelrod said.

In its annual report of "adverse health events," the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services says hospital falls in 2012 increased 11 percent, and that deaths from falls doubled -- compared to 2011.

Specifically, in 2012 there were 79 reported falls, compared to 71 in 2011. There were six reported deaths connected to hospital falls in 2012; three in 2011.

Aside from falls, the total number of adverse health events was up as well. These include injuries caused by things like bed ulcers, medication errors, or even objects left inside a body after surgery. In 2012, Minnesota hospitals reported 314 of these cases, resulting in 89 serious injuries (up from 84 the year before) and 14 deaths (up from five). Read the full report.

"And unfortunately most events like this go unreported," Axelrod claimed.

In fact, a just-released survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed hospitals failed to identify or report 86 percent of adverse patient events (including falls). The government issued this memorandum earlier this month.

The Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS news that the total number of patients somehow harmed in Minnesota hospitals has been decreasing throughout the last five years. At the same time, the MHA is currently developing a new high-tech training method for hospital staff, specifically designed to reduce the risks of patient falls. The technology is set to be available for use by hospitals later this year.

Axelrod's foundation will provide education and resources to patients and their families, counsel them about precautions to take in the hospital, and advocate for them when they run into difficulties. She is finalizing nonprofit (501c3) status with the IRS and working on a website. In the meantime, she can be reached at linda.axelrod@gmail.com. Here's a link to her foundation's mission.

"You can't prevent the harm if you don't know that the danger exists," Axelrod said.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com