Five months before the body of a missing patient was discovered in a rarely used San Francisco General Hospital stairwell, a woman visiting the hospital got stuck in a stairwell and no security personnel came to find her, even after she says an alarm was triggered, according to emails obtained by The San Francisco Examiner.
Lynne Spalding, 57, disappeared from her hospital bed Sept. 21 and her body was discovered Oct. 8 by a hospital engineer performing a regularly scheduled inspection of an emergency exit stairwell. The cause and manner of death remain under investigation.
Months before in June, a woman from San Luis Obispo County who was visiting her son at San Francisco General decided to bypass the elevators to run an errand, according to emails obtained through a public-records request. The emails, in which the woman's identity was redacted, detail her account of what happened next.
The woman said she used a stairwell, but saw no signs indicating it was only for emergencies or that doors leading back into the hospital would automatically lock.
When the door shut behind her, it locked. The woman walked up and down the stairwell in an attempt to get back inside the hospital, to no avail. She said she even knocked on the tiny windows of each door she encountered.
"No one heard me," she wrote in an email to the hospital. "I was fearful of going through another door [at the bottom of the stairwell] in case it also locked behind me and I became trapped further."
Despite that fear, she opened the door leading out of the hospital. She said an alarm sounded and she quickly closed the door and went back up the stairs.
San Francisco General contends that doors leading from emergency stairwells to outside the hospital building have no alarms.
The woman continued banging on windows and a nurse finally opened one of the doors. "She laughed and asked how I got in there," the woman wrote. "I told her I simply opened the door and walked in."
According to hospital protocol, when emergency exit doors are opened that have an alarm that continually goes off, a sheriff's deputy must use a key to turn off the alarm. Not until recently did all emergency exit doors have continuous alarms.
It's unclear if anyone responded to the alarm mentioned by the woman.
Sheriff's deputies are deployed to San Francisco General to provide security.
It's also unclear which stairwell the woman got stuck in, but her email seems to indicate it was an emergency exit stairwell like the one in which Spalding was found.
Since the discovery of Spalding's body, the hospital has made it policy to search the stairwell whenever an alarm is sounded, disable all alarms with a key and search stairwells daily.
"At the time, I thought I must look an idiot because surely there had to be security cameras watching me run up and down the stairwell trying to get out," the woman's email said. "And when I opened the bottom door and the alarm sounded, I fully expected security guards or someone to appear. No such thing happened."
There are no cameras in emergency stairwells or at exit doors.
The woman said she emailed the hospital and Sheriff's Department on Oct. 10, days after Spalding was found, so they would be made aware "there is a potential for things like this to occur, maybe more than you'd like to think."
"I can see how someone who was not feeling well, perhaps confused by stress or medication, could find her way into such a stairwell at that hospital," the woman wrote. "While my incident only lasted about 15 minutes, it was frightening ..."
San Francisco General said the woman's story would be part of an independent review into the facility's security standards conducted by UC San Francisco.