Donna Chapman died Monday after suffering fatal third-degree burns as she smoked unsupervised in her wheelchair at NHC HealthCare. Chapman had been wheeled onto the nursing home’s patio and left there alone to smoke a cigarette before dinner.

She was partly paralyzed from a stroke and had the use of only her right arm. Somehow Chapman’s clothing caught on fire, and was found ablaze by an attendant. The attendant returned to find Chapman on fire, then ran to get help instead of using the fire blanket that was stored on the patio.

Her family was shocked when they saw her in the trauma center. Blackened parts of her skin were coming off. Her badly burned clothes were reduced to scraps. Her bra disintegrated. Her white hair was charred black. She lingered in the hospital on Mother’s Day, then died at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

She caught fire and burned,” her daughter-in-law, Mary Portscheller says. “The doctor said several times that she had very deep burns on her breast, her back and the back of her head.”

At the burn unit at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, a doctor explained to Chapman’s family that the burns were so bad she would need eight skin grafts, painful procedures that might be too much for her.

“He said it would be tough on her to do all these painful skin grafts,” Portscheller said. “So we knew we were going to lose her.”

Relatives of a nursing home patient who suffered fatal burns while smoking a cigarette are questioning how long she was left unattended and whether proper procedures were followed before and after she caught fire.

• How did she get burned so badly, over 20 percent of her body, if left alone for only 10 minutes?

• Why wasn’t Chapman wearing a special fire-resistant smoking apron, which was assigned to her months ago?

Three months ago, the nursing home assigned her a smoking apron, a silicone-coated fiberglass fabric that covers someone from their shoulders to below their knees. It protects wheelchair users from accidental cigarette burns.

• Was the attendant who saw her on fire trained to use a specially made fire blanket to smother the flames?

NHC HealthCare’s administrator, Seth Peimann, told the Post-Dispatch that Chapman’s death was “a bad accident. This is a very difficult time here at the center,” Peimann said. “A lot of people were really attached to her. She was part of our family. We miss her.”

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