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Army veteran with dementia dies of hypothermia Christmas Day

Police car lights. (Dan Scanlan/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

A 76-year-old Portland man with dementia died from hypothermia Christmas Day after getting lost on his way home, his niece said Tuesday.

Christine Layton said her uncle, Henry Steele, was found dead two days after he went missing on his way home from the Veterans Administration hospital in Southwest Portland.

In a statement Tuesday, Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed one person died Saturday from hypothermia, but the office did not release the name of the person.

“This is a somber reminder that cold weather is dangerous for anyone outside who does not have the right gear to stay dry and warm,” county health officer Jennifer Vines said in the statement.

Layton, 50, said her uncle died about eight hours before his body was found, when temperatures in Portland were in the mid-30s and a winter storm warning was in effect.

Steele was in the early stages of dementia and lived in Southeast Portland with his brother, who took care of him, Layton said. Steele left his brother’s house Thursday morning to have some routine bloodwork done at the Veterans Administration hospital in Southwest Portland. A TriMet LIFT bus was scheduled to pick Steele up at the hospital and take him home, but Layton said her uncle boarded a #8 bus instead and never arrived home.

Layton said her father – Steele’s brother – called Portland police Thursday to report Steele missing, and their family and friends spent the next two days searching for him.

Portland police spokesperson Nathan Sheppard said they were called around 11:30 p.m. Thursday about Steele’s disappearance. A detective put together a missing person flier with photos of Steele that was sent to members of the bureau.

A person who saw Steele’s body called police to report it, Sheppard said.

Portland police called Layton’s father Saturday afternoon to say Steele’s body had been found lying in the bushes near the Portland Inn, off Northeast Columbia and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, Layton said.

He was found with a coat lying over him and cuts on his hands from trying to crawl into the bushes, she said.

“They said it looked like he was trying to stay warm,” Layton said. “He must have been walking around lost, confused – which is outrageous that our community can’t even ask, ‘Are you lost?’ ‘Do you need anything?’”

Steele was born in Corbett and was a U.S. Army veteran stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War, Layton said. He had two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

“He was full of life, even though he had the dementia starting,” she said. “He was just very nonchalant, caring, gentle. My dad is still trying to figure out how he’s going to take care of the hundred squirrels that (my uncle) fed every day.”

Kimberly DiLeo, Multnomah County’s chief medicolegal death investigator, said Wednesday there have been no other hypothermia deaths reported in the county.

But temperatures in the week ahead pose health risks to people outside, forecasters said.

The National Weather Service issued a special weather statement Monday warning that below-freezing temperatures this week could make hypothermia and frostbite happen faster. Those outside should dress in layers and cover any exposed skin, the statement said.

A person whose body heat has dropped due to cold weather exposure may not be able to think clearly or move well, the county said. Symptoms of hypothermia can appear similar to symptoms of impairment from drugs and alcohol.

The county urged people to call for help if they see someone outside who appears impaired and not dressed for the weather. People can call 2-1-1 to help someone find shelter or arrange for transportation there, or call the county’s non-emergency line to request a welfare check for someone. Anyone who sees someone outside who appears to be in medical crisis should call 9-1-1, the county said.

Multnomah County announced it would open five emergency warming shelters at 3 p.m. Saturday and make TriMet free for anyone needing a ride there.


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