Thursday, August 15, 2002

Woman leaves nursing home, dies

Published in the Current

State investigators have finished an inquiry into the death of a Cape Elizabeth woman who walked out of a secure area at the Viking Community nursing home and drowned in a culvert just down the street. A report is expected to be released in the next couple of weeks.

Shirley Sayre, 77, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, had lived in Portland growing up, and worked in Portland and South Portland. She attended local Baptist churches and participated in various church activities, including teaching Sunday school for many years.

She was a resident of the Viking Community nursing home on Scott Dyer Road, and was living in a secure area of that facility, used to house and care for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, when she somehow got out.

Her family has declined comment on the investigation.

At Sayre’s funeral, her son, Stuart, who also lives in Cape Elizabeth, said his mother was “a wonderful mother who was always there for me.” He remembered her as a patient mother, who was loving and insightful.

He said he confided in her about personal issues, and also enjoyed discussing a wide variety of topics with her. He expressed great gratitude to her for teaching him to read and to love reading and writing. At one time, he said, she was frustrated because she had read through entire sections of the libraries in Portland, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

Shirley Sayre’s sister, Charlotte Russell of South Portland, remembered taking trips with Shirley and their friends, and enjoying each other’s company while reading or in the company of family, friends and loved ones.

Stuart expressed sorrow at not knowing when to say goodbye to his mother, as she entered “her deep descent into the mind-robbing illness named Alzheimer’s. ”

Sayre was put to bed just before 11 p.m., Aug. 8, according to an appeal for help sent to local media outlets by the Cape Elizabeth Police Department the following morning.

A bed check a short time later revealed that she was not in her bed, and a subsequent check of the grounds failed to locate her.

Cape police were notified Sayre was missing at 12:57 a.m., according to dispatch records, and a search began. She was found dead just after 9 a.m., Aug. 9, in a culvert on Scott Dyer Road.

The search involved members of the Cape fire, rescue and police departments, as well as the WET team, Maine Warden Service and the Maine State Police.

Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick, who coordinates search and rescue efforts in the town, said searchers were out all night. They looked in the stream behind the Viking, and along roads and trails near the nursing home.

McGouldrick said searchers kept to existing paths because a police dog from South Portland was working to sniff out where Sayre was, and they didn’t want to contaminate the dog’s search area with lots of human scent.

“We weren’t getting into the woods because we didn’t want to confuse the dog,” McGouldrick said.

Firefighters also used thermal imaging cameras, usually used to help them find concealed areas that are still burning in building fires. In this case, McGouldrick said, they would show a warm person as distinct from surrounding vegetation or buildings, which would be cooler.

In the morning, searchers hadn’t found anything, and regrouped to do a visual search of the area.

Sayre’s body was found by a state warden, floating face-down in a pool of water in the culvert, McGouldrick said. The state medical examiner determined that the death was caused by drowning.

And though searchers had passed by the location several times during the night, he said it would have been hard to spot in the dark.

“They barely saw her in the daytime,” McGouldrick said.

Sayre’s daughter-in-law, Lynne Sayre, said the family “could not say enough” to thank the people who searched all night. “We are so moved,” she said, “by their compassion and passion for what they do.”

Doreen Hunt, the acting administrator at the Viking, refused to comment, saying there was an investigation going on about the incident. On Aug. 9, Hunt faxed a short statement to local media outlets that said Sayre apparently wandered off a secure unit and out of the building unnoticed by staff.”

Newell Augur, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said the agency’s investigation was routine in all cases of what he called “elopement,” in which a patient in a secure area of a nursing home leaves without the knowledge of the staff.

He said that regular inspection visits to the Viking Community earlier in the year had turned up what he called “the normal amount of deficiencies” for a nursing home of its size. And while there was a shortcoming in the number of day staff for each patient, Augur said the deficiency was “not alarming” and had not included problems with patient supervision by nighttime staff.

McGouldrick said the Viking’s secure areas are locked by keypad access. Doors won’t open without people punching in the correct code, he said. McGouldrick also said it may never be known exactly how Sayre got out of the building.