A CORONER has criticised a Hampshire hospital after an elderly cancer patient fell out of bed and suffered a fatal head injury.

Rita Phelps, 74, died after staff in the intensive care unit at Southampton General Hospital failed to raise one of her bedside safety rails, an inquest heard.

Gordon Denson, deputy coroner for Southampton and the New Forest, said her “sad and untimely” death had been preventable.

He added: “I am, to say the least, concerned that the level of care expected was below the standard required. Such a fundamental error should never have occurred.”

Mrs Phelps’s two daughters also slated the hospital, saying their mum would still be alive today if nurses had taken more care.

A family statement read out at the inquest said her fall followed errors by other NHS staff, who originally misdiagnosed her illness as osteoporosis and a chest infection.

Mrs Phelps subsequently moved from Hythe to Hove – and doctors there discovered she was suffering from a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

She made good progress and returned to Hampshire, moving into a property in Robin Gardens, Totton, after being told she was in remission.

Last year the widow noticed that a pea-sized lump on the side of her head was growing rapidly and was given the devastating news that her cancer had returned.

After being admitted to Southampton General Hospital she was transferred to the intensive care unit after her condition deteriorated, the inquest was told.

On June 20 her family received a 5am telephone call saying she had fallen out of bed during the night.

Their statement said: “Staff apologised and said it should never have happened. We asked if the sides of the bed were up and were told that no one could remember.”

But the coroner read a statement from staff nurse Camilla Fox, who said the rails on the right-hand side of the bed were down.

She added: “I heard a noise and found the patient on the floor. I shouted for help and supported her on the floor. I asked her questions, which she answered clearly and coherently.”

However, she said Mrs Phelps started to look pale and became clammy.

Fellow nurse Rebecca Dan said the patient struck her head in the fall, adding that her family looked “visibly shocked” when they were told what had happened.

As a result of the accident the pensioner suffered a bleed on the brain, which was inoperable, and died a few hours later.

Hospital staff said an investigation was launched into the incident and steps had been taken to prevent any similar tragedies in the future.

The coroner said Mrs Phelps died as a result of injuries she received in the fall and recorded a verdict of accidental death.

After the hearing her daughters, Jan Oriel, of Hove, and Teresa Harris, of Totton, said their mother was a happy, jolly person who had been failed by the NHS.

Jan said: “If that nurse had raised the bed rail she would still be alive today.”

Referring to her mother’s cancer she added: “She did not have a chance to fight it because that chance was taken away.”

Juliet Pearce, patient safety manager at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, issued a statement after the hearing.

She said: “We hope the information shared with family members both in hospital and at the inquest demonstrates the trust’s regret and concern about this incident as well as our commitment to minimise the risk of falls.

“We will continue to provide Mrs Phelps’s family with our support and will keep them informed of the improvements made to systems and practices to prevent other families suffering the loss of a loved one under similar circumstances.”