Severna Park woman dies after being erroneously presumed dead on Oct. 1

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 1:57 AM

An 89-year-old Maryland woman died over the weekend after a bizarre and grisly series of events in which she was presumed to have died in her house -- until someone sent to collect her body realized she was alive.

According to accounts from a neighbor and authorities, police had found the woman, identified as Ruth Johnson, on a floor in her home in the Severna Park area of Anne Arundel County on Oct. 1, after neighbors became concerned for her welfare.

Based on the accounts, Johnson lived alone on Ledbury Road, and it seemed clear to the officers who were initially sent to the house that she had died. County police said Monday that they were troubled by the matter and would investigate.

Johnson had provided for her body to be donated to science, and a representative of the state board that accepts such donations was sent to the house.

A neighbor who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter recalled standing outside in the evening when the man came out.

"Where are you taking her?" the neighbor said she asked.

"We're not taking her anyplace," the neighbor said she was told. "She's alive."

According to the neighbor, the man who had come for the body said he had seen Johnson's arm move.

He also told her that Johnson had appeared to exhale. That, the neighbor was told, was not unusual for a deceased person. But then, the neighbor said, the man said she inhaled, and that was described as a sign of life.

The woman was taken to a hospital, where the neighbor visited her. "She was on oxygen, breathing very roughly," seemingly asleep, the neighbor said. "She was not conscious."

Johnson was transferred to a hospice, where she died Saturday, said Ronn Wade, director of the state anatomy board, which administers the donation program.

The neighbor said Johnson was a private person whose husband had died in the past year. Neighbors tried to look out for her without being intrusive, the neighbor said. They decided to call authorities when newspapers began accumulating in a box at her house.

A police officer "went in and came out and said yes, in fact, she had passed," the neighbor said.

In a statement sent to the Eye on Annapolis Web site, county police officials said personnel are "expected to render aid to ill, injured or unconscious persons" until medical personnel can take over.

Calling the initial facts of the incident "deeply disturbing," Col. James Teare Sr., the county police chief, said he was taking the matter seriously.

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