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Disabled Woman Dies After Using a Metal Straw

At the conclusion of an investigation on Monday, a U.K. coroner’s office warned about the potential dangers of using fixed metal straws for people with mobility challenges after a disabled woman died from a traumatic brain injury caused by a metal straw.

Elena Struthers-Gardner, a disabled 60-year-old retired jockey and equestrian, died on Nov. 23, 2018, after she fell in her home in Dorset, England, while carrying a mason jar glass with a lid and reusable metal straw. She was impaled by the straw, which caused a fatal traumatic brain injury. Struthers-Gardner was hospitalized for a day after the incident before being removed from life support.

Struthers-Gardner experienced mobility challenges due to spine injuries from a fall in her 20s, according to The Telegraph. Her wife, Mandy Struthers-Gardner, said Elena had multiple fractures in her spine that caused her to fall or collapse “like a sack of potatoes at random intervals.”

Detectives indicated this was a very unusual case and is certainly not the norm for those who use metal straws.

“Medical staff had never seen an injury like that,” Detective Inspector Wayne Seymour said during an inquest on Monday. “They said it was unusual more than anything else.”

However, Struthers-Gardner’s death highlights why many people with disabilities have concerns about straw bans and being unable to access plastic straws, especially while eating out. As Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, wrote, straws aren’t optional for many people with disabilities. She said:

In our rush to reduce the harm caused by straws, we must not forget those who use them out of necessity, not convenience: people with disabilities. Millions of people with disabilities need straws to drink for reasons including muscle weakness or paralysis, swallowing problems or involuntary movements. I have cerebral palsy and have difficulty lifting and holding cups and glasses due to muscle spasticity and lack of coordination. I need straws and use them daily.

For many, the solution to plastic straw restrictions is reusable options made of alternate materials like metal, paper, glass or silicone. Though new laws restricting the use of plastic straws help protect the environment, many of these eco-friendly materials aren’t a great option for people with disabilities because they’re too heavy, inflexible or difficult to clean, among other difficulties and risk for harm.

Though a rare occurrence, Struthers-Gardner’s death highlights another potential danger for disabled people. Her death led assistant coroner Brendan Allen to warn people about the potential dangers of using fixed metal reusable straws during an inquest hearing.

“Clearly great care should be taken when using these metal straws,” Allen said. “There is no give in them at all. If someone does fall on one and it’s pointed in the wrong direction, serious injury can occur. It seems to me these metal straw should not be used with any form of lid that holds them in place.”

Struthers-Gardner’s partner Mandy added at the hearing the danger of some reusable straws is especially great for those who have mobility challenges and other disabilities.

“I just feel that in the hands of mobility-challenged people like Elena, or children, or even able-bodied people losing their footing, these things are so long and very strong,” Mandy Struthers-Gardner added. “Even if they don’t end a life they can be very dangerous.”

Header image via Svetlana-Cherruty/Getty Images