480-pound woman dies after six years on couch

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Written by Pat Moore

She lived in filth, so large she couldn't move from her sofa, even to use the bathroom.

Early Wednesday, still fused to the couch, Gayle Laverne Grinds died following a six-hour effort by rescue workers who struggled to lift the 480-pound woman and get her to a Martin County hospital.

Unable to separate the skin of the 39-year-old woman from her sofa, 12 Martin County Fire-Rescue workers slid both onto a trailer and hauled her behind a pickup to Martin Memorial Hospital South. She died a short time later.

Sheriff's investigators questioned how Grinds lived in such conditions without more help from family or authorities.

"We're not treating her death as suspicious at this point, but we do have an investigation started because the circumstances surrounding her death are so unusual," Martin Sheriff's Sgt. Jenell Atlas said.

The Treasure Coast medical examiner performed an autopsy of the 4-foot-10 woman and listed her cause of death as "morbid obesity," officials said. Results of toxicology tests will take several weeks.

"I tried to take care of her the best I could," said 54-year-old Herman Thomas, who lived with Grinds in the duplex apartment in Golden Gate, south of Stuart. "I tried to get her to get up, but it wouldn't do no good."

He said the woman that he called his wife hadn't been off the couch for six years. No record of their marriage could be found.

"I wish I could have pulled her off the couch, but she wouldn't let me," he said, covering his face and sobbing.

Inside the home, the floor and walls were matted with feces, and trash was strewn across the floors, some which were bare concrete. Furniture was toppled, and pictures were knocked off walls.

Atlas said sheriff's detectives will look for potential "negligence issues" related to her care and death.

"We want to know what happened to her, how she ended up this way, and is she supposed to have been receiving any care," she said.

Rescue workers were called to the home at 8:44 p.m. Tuesday by Grinds' brother and his girlfriend, who reported the woman had trouble breathing and "emphysema problems." The crew initially tried to remove her from the couch, but the pain was too excruciating.

Workers wore protective clothing and installed large air handling hoses to ventilate the horrendous odor emitting from the home while trying to figure out how to get the woman and her couch to the hospital.

The street in front of the row of duplex apartments turned into a makeshift construction site as rescue crews used hammers and chain saws to build a large wooden stretcher with handles cut around the perimeter so firefighters could lift the woman and the couch, Martin County Fire-Rescue District Chief Jim Loffredo said.

After several failed attempts, including building one plywood plank that was too small to hold her, workers removed sliding glass patio doors at the back of the home, leaving a 6-foot opening large enough to get her out.

They slid the couch with her on it onto the larger wooden plank supported by 2-by-4 boards, which were slid onto a utility trailer.

"We couldn't get her in the ambulance," Loffredo said.

The trailer was hooked to the back of a pickup, leaving the scene sometime after 2 a.m., witnesses said. Grinds died at 3:12 a.m., still attached to the couch, officials said.

Neighbors who watched the lengthy rescue effort said they had never seen Grinds out of the home.

Jerry Thomas, who lives across the street for six years, said he has seen young girls at the home on occasion but never knew Grinds was inside.

"All we knew was the old man lived there," Thomas said. "I had no idea a woman ever lived in that house. Apparently she'd been on that couch a long time."

Unidentified relatives expressed anger at the scene.

"Family members are upset.... It's a difficult position," Martin County Fire-Rescue specialist Chris Wisniewski said.

Clifford Grinds, who is believed to be Gayle Grinds' brother, refused comment and slammed a door when contacted by a reporter at his Hobe Sound home Wednesday afternoon.

Court records show Gayle Grinds cared for a young niece and nephew after the death of her sister in 1992. Those children are now 19 and 15, but their whereabouts were unclear Wednesday.

"We are used to going to people's houses when things are at their worst... and that's fine, we're trained for it," Atlas said. "But there is no warning for something like this."

Atlas said a community policing deputy who worked the neighborhood a few years ago knew of Grinds but never had any dealings with her, and no deputy had ever been called inside the home.

In June 2003, 911 dispatchers received a call from the home for medical assistance, but Martin County Fire Chief Tom Billington said he could not reveal the nature of that call, citing federal medical privacy laws and the ongoing investigation.

The Department of Children and Families can intervene to help adults who are unable to care for themselves, but DCF officials said Wednesday they did not know about Grinds.

Christine Demetriades, agency spokeswoman for the Treasure Coast, said DCF has no record of calls to the abuse hot line or reports before she died.

Source and full credit [now defuct]: The Palm Beach Post, http://www.palmbeachpost.com/localnews/content/martin_stlucie/epaper/2004/08/12/m1a_mcbody_0812.html

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