Power is cut, a woman dies, and furor follows

Her oxygen pump stopped. Now, N.H. officials press utility for an explanation

The home of Kay and Stephen Phaneuf at 18 Charles St. in Salem, N.H. National Grid shut off power to the home. The home of Kay and Stephen Phaneuf at 18 Charles St. in Salem, N.H. National Grid shut off power to the home. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / June 26, 2010

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SALEM, N.H.— The National Grid worker showed up at Kay Phaneuf’s beige, Cape-style home on Charles Street at 9 a.m. Monday with an order in hand to shut off her electricity. He saw no car in the driveway. He knocked on the door and rang the doorbell, just inches away from a red sign stating “No smoking, oxygen in use.’’ When he got no answer, he cut the power and left.

But Phaneuf, who relied on an oxygen machine because she suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, was inside. By the time her husband, Stephen, arrived home an hour later, she was unconscious. The machine, a plug-in, had stopped working. Stephen Phaneuf called 911. Two days later, his 54-year-old wife was dead.

As a result of her death, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory body for utility companies in the state, has launched an investigation and Governor John Lynch yesterday called on the commission to conduct a broad review of the shut-off policies of all utility companies operating in the state.

In a letter sent yesterday to commission chairman Thomas Getz, Lynch said, “I am terribly saddened and troubled by the tragic situation of Kay Phaneuf, a woman from Salem who depended on an oxygen machine and whose death may be connected to a decision by National Grid to terminate her power for nonpayment.’’

Lynch ordered the results of the investigation, and any recommended policy changes, to arrive at his desk by the end of July. State law currently prohibits shutoffs in cases where power is needed for medical reasons.

Salem Police Captain Shawn Patten said Kay Phaneuf had no pulse when police and firefighters arrived. They performed CPR on her several times before she was resuscitated and rushed to Caritas Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, he said.

“It’s fairly obvious that she needed to be hooked up to a machine to live, and the oxygen device that she required to live was no longer operable because there was no electricity,’’ Patten said.

He said the machine had a backup battery but it had not been activated and he did not know whether it was working properly.

David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said in a phone interview that the meter worker “had no record to indicate there was a medical note on the account.’’

“We follow the state regulations to protect the customer and to protect the company as well,’’ he said. “The last thing that we want to do is cut off a person’s service.’’

The account had included a medical notification, Graves said, but it had expired on May 15.

“We sent them a letter on April 30 advising them of the expiration, but there was no response,’’ Graves said. “We sent out a letter on June 1 advising them that service would be shut off no earlier than June 15, but they didn’t respond to that either. In our review of this event, we found nothing to indicate that we didn’t follow proper procedure. And there is nothing so far to indicate that the shutoff of electricity had anything to do with her medical emergency.’’

He said the company goes beyond the state’s 60-day medical notification requirement and gives 90 days.

Pat Jones, a Boston-based attorney who was hired by the family to investigate the incident, declined to comment other than to say, “the family is grieving and currently preparing funeral services.’’ Jones requested that the family’s privacy be respected.

Debra Howland, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment on the case, saying the commission did not have all the facts yet.

She said, however, that the company has rules regarding disconnecting service and their purpose “is to provide extra protection for people who rely on electricity for medical purposes, above from other customers.’’

“I’m not aware of any situation in at least the past 15 years where a disconnection has resulted in the hospitalization or fatality of a customer,’’ she said.

Howland said she sent a letter Thursday to National Grid requesting a detailed two-year history of all contacts the company had with the Phaneuf family.

Graves said National Grid replied to Howland yesterday, but he declined to discuss their responses.

Janet Deloge, who had been married to Phaneuf’s former husband, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Phaneuf grew up in Methuen, had two adult daughters, and a grandchild, and was a cancer survivor.

“She has been on oxygen a couple of years because of the COPD, and she uses a portable tank as a backup and for when she goes out,’’ she said.’’ She sleeps with an oxygen tent around her bed.’’

It was not clear yesterday the exact type of apparatus Phaneuf used or whether it had an alarm or battery backup.

Two years ago, Fernando Vargas, an East Boston teen who relied on a ventilator died during a two-hour power outage. An investigation revealed that the backup battery power malfunctioned.

On Charles Street yesterday, neighbors said Phaneuf and her family attended St. Joseph parish in Salem.

“She was just a great lady, funny as hell,’’ said Tracy Frenette. “They’re [the neighbors] all very tight-knit, very protective, and they’re all horrified.’’

Globe correspondent Alex Katz contributed to this report.

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