The circumstances leading to the death of Grace Huxstep, 73, prompted Labour to demand an overhaul of procedures for inspecting nursing homes. David Blunkett, health spokesman, said last night: 'It appears we are returning to the Dark Ages. This is inexcusable.'
Mrs Huxstep's family has written to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, complaining of 'total medical neglect' in the home. The Department of Health said last night that it would ask for a full report from the health authority responsible for the home.
Mrs Huxstep died on 6 August last year, shortly after being admitted to hospital following several months as a resident in Greystone's nursing home in Dulwich, south London.
Doctors at Dulwich Hospital found that Mrs Huxstep's legs were covered with ulcers infested with maggots. The flesh had been eaten away to expose the tendons in her feet. There was also a blowfly in one leg.
Mrs Huxstep had been admitted after her legs became gangrenous. She was also bleeding, vomiting and was apparently undernourished. Surgeons wanted to amputate both legs but believed that the trauma of such a major operation might kill her. Instead, she was given morphine to alleviate the pain, the inquest heard.
The home denied any malpractice and Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Commission, which is responsible for it, said that the quality of care in the home had satisfied inspectors.
But the Southwark Coroner, Sir Montague Levene, said: 'I think the ulcerations on her feet were appalling.' Sir Montague, who recorded a verdict of natural death, called for a review of care guidelines at the nursing home, which charges about pounds 300 a week. 'We don't know how, when or where she got the maggots. A blowfly somehow got into her leg, but this did not kill her. She was a very ill lady and suffered from a heart condition.'
The court heard evidence that the ulcerations had contributed to her death. It emerged that a local GP had not inspected her sores for nearly a month before she went into hospital and had not been alerted to any deterioration in her condition.
Barbara Huxstep, a daughter, claimed that it was only after she demanded that her mother go to hospital that the home agreed to send her. The family is considering suing the home for negligence.
The coroner concluded that Mrs Huxstep should have been sent to hospital earlier and Edward Black, the home's nursing manager, conceded that this might have been appropriate.
The Southwark Health Commission said that it inspected the home at least twice a year and 'the view of the inspectors is that this is a good home'. A spokesman said that there had been an inquiry following the death and that no fault had been attributed to the staff there.
Mr Blunkett said: 'This case highlights the urgent need to step up monitoring and inspection of nursing and residential homes, to protect people from the worst situations which can arise.
'The number of misconduct cases referred to the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting has rocketed in recent months - a signal that the Government must act immediately to protect those who are most vulnerable.'
Alleged abuse by staff in private homes is the largest single source of complaints submitted to the council. Over the past decade, there has been a huge increase in the number of private nursing homes, which look after 250,000 long-stay patients. Local health authorities register and inspect the homes.
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