HUMANSVILLE, Mo. — At the end of a gravel county road outside Humansville, William Baughman lives alone with his thoughts, haunted by memories of the worst day of his life, when he lost his wife of 46 years and the most significant symbol of their marriage.

“Every day I cry and I cry,” he said. “Figured by now I’d be all out of tears, but I’m not.”

Wedding Rings Go Missing

His wife Kathleen choked to death on breakfast in a fast food parking lot last August. Multiple medical teams tried to save her life. In the process, her wedding rings went missing.

“She wasn’t moving no more,” Baughman said. “She collapsed in my legs and I just held her there until the ambulance came.”

KOLR10 Investigates is looking into what happens to patients’ valuables including jewelry in the midst of a medical emergency. An ambulance rushed Kathleen to the ER at Citizen’s Memorial Hospital in Bolivar. That’s the last place Baughman remembers seeing her wedding rings.

The Hospital Transfer

“She had her rings on when she was in Bolivar because I was holding her left hand,” Baughman said.

But COVID protocols concerning hospital capacity meant Kathleen would take another ambulance ride four hours northeast to Hannibal Regional Hospital. Baughman beat the paramedics there.

“And then when we got there it was like five minutes before they let us go in,” said Baughman. “And the rings weren’t on her fingers.”

Baughman believes it was an unnecessary trip to begin with. He traveled 500 miles there and back for nurses to ask him to pull the plug.

“I couldn’t do it. My son Jason did it for me,” said Baughman.

In the year since then, he’s searched relentlessly for one of the last items left of his wife. He’s spoken to both hospitals, but it’s turned up no signs of her wedding rings so far.

“There are times I don’t even want to go on no more. I wish it was me,” he said.

CMH Bolivar provided KOLR10 Investigates with a statement, saying they did not remove Kathleen’s rings during emergency response.

Statement from Citizens Memorial Hospital

“CMH has completed a thorough investigation including interviewing staff and contacting multiple other agencies involved in the care of the patient. First and foremost, our priority is to provide the best care for the patient. Because of patient confidentiality, we are limited to what we can reveal. However, CMH paramedics were not the first on the scene and the patient was not ultimately admitted to CMH.

It is not CMH Emergency Services’ practice to remove jewelry unless it interferes with treatment or there is an injury, such as an injury to the hand and the patient is wearing rings or a watch. In this case, the patient’s medical emergency did not involve a hand injury and if the patient was wearing jewelry it was not removed by CMH Emergency Services staff.

If jewelry is removed for care of the patient, it is sent home with family whenever possible. If family does not take possession, a patient’s personal belongings are transferred with the patient or secured in the hospital safe by a security officer.”

Pandemic Travel Nurse Provides Perspective

Marissa Wheeler previously worked as an ICU nurse in Springfield and travel nurse in four different hospitals throughout the pandemic. She said every hospital has different protocols and during COVID, hospital procedures often changed weekly. Wheeler gave an example of what could happen to someone’s personal valuables while receiving emergency treatment.

“If I’m the primary nurse and I’m working on trying to stabilize the patient, and we get the ring off, I hand it to another nurse,” said Wheeler. “The goal is to get it into a container and into the patient’s belonging bags. Blood pressure drops significantly, heartbeat drops significantly — something happens and that side nurse may get distracted and steps away to come help and it gets lost in the mix.”

Hannibal Regional Hospital Avoids Comment

KOLR10 Investigates also pushed for a response from Hannibal Regional Hospital. That was Kathleen’s second stop, where Baughman first noticed his wife’s jewelry was missing. We spoke to the marketing manager several times in two weeks, but Hannibal Regional quit returning our calls for comment before the story aired.

“It makes it much more likely [to lose items] if you’re transferring from hospital to hospital, unfortunately,” said Wheeler. “It’s not our intent, but it can happen.”

KOLR10 Investigates also checked with other Missouri hospitals to find out their protocol for storing personal items.

Mercy Hospital’s Protocol on Patient Belongings

“When patients are admitted to Mercy Hospital Springfield, the staff goes over a form that details their personal belongings and gives them bags to store items like clothing and shoes. Co-workers encourage patients to send home valuables they won’t need during their stay with a trusted friend or family member.

If patients would like to secure valuables during their stay, the public safety department will respond, itemize the valuables and secure them for the patient. The patient can use the itemized list to retrieve their property upon discharge.

In cases where the patient is unconscious or unaccompanied during admission, public safety will pick up any valuables, itemize them and put a receipt of belongings in the patient’s chart.

Small personal items, like dentures or hearing aids, are stored at the bedside in a cup with an identifying patient sticker.”

Cox Hospital’s Protocol on Patient Belongings

“We encourage patients to leave valuables, home medications and unessential belongings at home or give those items to a family member or friend for safekeeping.

For the valuables the patients have on hand, valuables are assessed and inventoried as soon as possible with a ‘valuable/belonging’ form.

Once that is filled out, the valuables will be stored in a patient valuables envelope bag that includes the patient’s information. Both the patient and staff confirm the contents of the bag and sign the receipt and the bag. Once that is complete, the patient valuables envelope bag is delivered to a designated, secure location.
This location is shared with the patient and/or family member.

Secured patient valuables may be claimed with the receipt from the bag(s) And proper identification by staff, the patient or a designated person with proper identification.”

Baughman Remains Hopeful

Baughman is still holding out hope that other generations can cherish this priceless piece of the love he shared with his wife.

“If anybody knows anything about these rings, please contact somebody,” he said. “I ain’t gonna press charges. I just want her rings back. I promised them to my granddaughter.”

Patient privacy laws can make getting information tough. The investigative team helped Baughman submit a medical release affidavit, hoping that it may have notes from a case manager about his wife’s wedding rings. We’re waiting on those records to come back. Baughman is also working to file a complaint with the state of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services.

If you have a story you’d like Investigative Reporter Lauren Barnas to look into, email her at lbarnas@kolr10.com.