By Sorrel King
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 275 pages, $24)
After her 18-month-old daughter, Josie, died from complications of treatment at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in
early 2001, Sorrel King was bent on vengeance: She wanted to take the hospital apart “brick by brick” and ruin the
doctors and nurses responsible for the loss of her baby.
But in the end she took another path, joining forces with her adversaries in a bid to make medical care safer for
patients. In “Josie’s Story,” a wrenching but inspiring memoir, Ms. King details her journey from grief to activism.
With a chunk of money from a legal settlement, she created a patient-safety program at Hopkins and a foundation
devoted to reducing medical errors. For the past few years she has been a passionate advocate for patients,
lecturing medical professionals about the devastating effects of slipshod care.
Medical errors are estimated to kill as many as 98,000 patients a year in the U.S. Patients die from the wrong drug
or the wrong dosage, from infections that could be prevented with simple hygiene and from complications that
could be prevented with better oversight. As Ms. King notes, the problem is often not a single doctor or nurse or a
misplaced decimal point on a medication vial but rather faulty systems and communication breakdowns. Peter
Pronovost, a Hopkins intensive-care expert who became Ms. King’s partner on the stump, calls it “the Swiss cheese
effect.” There are so many potential places for error that “when the holes all line up,” he says, “the errors get
through the system and the patient dies.” (He speaks from personal knowledge: His own father died after a
The King tragedy begins to unfold when Josie, the youngest of four children, wanders into the bathroom one
chaotic day as the family is moving into a new house in Baltimore. Alone for just a few moments, she turns on the
water in the bathtub, where she liked to float her toy airplane. When she steps into the tub, scalding water causes
second- and third-degree burns over 60% of her body. Her screams summon her panicked parents, a 911 call is
made and Josie is soon in the care of the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
The Kings are subjected to a child-abuse inquiry and made miserable by the thought that they let their daughter
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out of sight long enough for such an accident to happen. They are cleared — the hot-water heater is found to have a
faulty mechanism that set the temperature at 150 degrees. After a transfer to Hopkins’s pediatric intensive-care
unit, Josie is on the road to recovery.
But then things go awry. Ms. King notices that Josie seems especially thirsty, but the nurses and doctors don’t
seem to think it is a problem. When an unfamiliar nurse comes into Josie’s hospital room to administer a dose of
methadone as a painkiller, Ms. King protests that she heard a doctor give a verbal order that no narcotics were
needed, but it is given anyway. Josie’s thirst appears to worsen, but her vital signs seem fine, and no one heeds her
mother’s concerns about dehydration. At the bedside, Ms. King suddenly sees her daughter’s eyes roll back into
her head and calls for help as the child goes into cardiac arrest and can’t be rescued. All that is left is for Josie’s
parents to have her baptized before the life support is turned off. She dies in their arms.
In the hospital business, Josie’s death was what is known as a “sentinel event” — an unexpected death or serious
injury that must be investigated. The hospital’s chief attorney, Rick Kidwell, invites Ms. King to recount her version
of events at the hospital’s analysis meeting. She is stunned to learn that the final methadone dose was ordered by
a doctor as part of a diminishing-dosage strategy to wean Josie off the drug. The hospital says that the drug didn’t
cause the cardiac arrest, but we never really understand what happened; all the officials can tell her is that there
were “complications.” The hospital should have listened to Ms. King’s pleas, and Josie “should not have died,” Mr.
Kidwell admits. (Hopkins, for its part, has not publicly challenged Ms. King’s version of events and says that it is
proud to work with her on patient-safety programs.)
The Kings refuse an early settlement offer but in the end decide that the money can serve a higher goal, ensuring
that “every hospital in the country knows [Josie’s] name and why she died.” Mr. Kidwell gives Ms. King the goahead to air Hopkins’s dirty laundry and arranges for her first public speech about Josie — at Hopkins’s own grand
rounds for staff. The amphitheater is standing room only, a sea of white coats, scrubs and business suits. Ms.
King sees, at this event and others, that health-care professionals suffer, too, from error incidents. They are
terrified “that they might be the one at the end of the line who administers the drug with the wrong dosage or signs
off on a treatment given to the wrong patient.”
Ms. King finds many champions. Charles Denham, a doctor with his own patient-safety organization, videotapes a
speech that she gives to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement. He makes DVDs from
it so that she can provide them to hospitals in return for a donation to the Josie King Foundation. When Don
Berwick, the charismatic leader of IHI, launches a campaign to “save 100,000 lives” at another conference, Ms.
King stirs the audience to take up the cause. When the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sets up a program
to let families call for a “rapid response team” if they feel a patient is not getting proper attention, Ms. King funds
part of its pilot project.
Along the way, Ms. King struggles to make peace with the past and taps into a network of families who have been
harmed by medical error. She sees the start of a trend toward openness when a growing number of hospitals agree
to disclose their mistakes and vow to learn from them. Nothing will bring Josie back, of course, but every effort to
avoid a repetition of her tragedy pays silent tribute to her name.
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