The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday November 29th

Mother's death not from bed fall

Concern for bed safety sparked by false reports

This story has been updated with new information from Jonathan Privette, assistant chief medical examiner.

Bed rails wouldn’t have prevented a mother’s fatal fall from a lofted dorm bed, an autopsy report shows.

The death, initially attributed by University officials to a fall from the bed, prompted a surge of requests for bed rails. The newly-released autopsy indicates the woman fell while climbing in or out of bed.

Donna Sykes, 49, was spending the night in her daughter Jesse’s dorm room to help the transfer student adjust to college life. Jesse Sykes was born with cerebral palsy and depended on her mother for help moving around campus, according to The Rocky Mount Telegram.

EMS officials were called to Jesse Sykes’ dorm room shortly before 2 a.m. Aug. 19.

The autopsy report shows Sykes died from an intracranial hemorrhage due to blunt force injury. The report, initially completed Aug. 30, lists a fall from a bunk bed as the probable cause of death.

But on Sept. 29, the medical examiner updated it to say new information showed Sykes likely tripped over her daughter’s walker while climbing either in or out of the bed. She fell backwards and hit her head on a dresser about six feet away.

“This suggests that she probably did not simply roll out of the bed but fell,” wrote Dr. Jonathan Privette, the assistant chief medical examiner who conducted the autopsy.

Privette said Wednesday he toured a dorm room set up as Sykes’ was with a Department of Public Safety officer. She could not have fallen where she did had she rolled out of bed, he said.

The initial information suggesting she fell from the bed came from the report he received from the hospital, Privette said.

Students and housing officials maintain the lofted bed safety push is necessary, even as concern was sparked by false reports.

Based on reports from University officials, The Daily Tar Heel and multiple other news organizations published stories indicating Sykes fell from the bed. The reports alarmed students, who began requesting more bed rails than usual.

The increased requests were also fueled by e-mails sent to all on-campus students alerting them to the availability of bed rails.

Larry Hicks, the director of housing, said the news of Sykes’ autopsy was unlikely to effect housing’s recent goal of making bed rails available for all 8,500 campus beds.

“It wouldn’t sway our decision in terms of moving forward,” he said.

Hicks said the department’s advisory committee will wait for the results of a survey sent to students before making a final decision.

Students have requested 500 bed rails since news of Sykes’ death. About 1,000 rails are still available.

There are usually between 50 and 100 requests for bed rails each year. There were more requests than usual this year even before Sykes’ death, an increase Hicks attributed to the inclusion of bed rails on the department’s display room bed.

Sophomore Lindsay Kaudelka said she appreciates her bed rail.

“I know that it’s working because sometimes I wake up with marks on my arm from where I pushed up against it,” the Cobb resident said.

Privette said he felt the concern for lofted bed safety was warranted. In this case, the top bunk was about 6 feet off the floor.

“That’s probably not the safest,” he said.

At $30 a rail, providing bed rails for every bed on campus would cost an estimated $255,000. The University had ordered 800 rails as of mid-September and was borrowing rails from other UNC-system schools to meet demand.

Details about Sykes’ death have been few and conflicting.

The University did not report Sykes’ death until the DTH inquired, about two weeks after her fall.

The initial incident report from the Department of Public Safety indicated drugs or alcohol were potential factors. University police Chief Jeff McCracken later said that report was mistaken.

The toxicology report, dated Sept. 29, does indicate small traces of diazepam, the drug used in Valium, an anti-anxiety medication also used as a muscle relaxant and sedative.

Privette said he requested the full toxicology report because she tested positive for benzodiazepines at the hospital.

There were also traces of nordiazepam, temazepam and oxazepam, typically associated with diazepam. UNC pharmacology professor Dr. Kim Brouwer said the amounts found in Sykes are not out of the ordinary assuming a normal dose.

UNC spokesman Mike McFarland, reached after-hours, said he wasn’t aware of the autopsy’s findings.

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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