Josie's Storyby Sorrel King
Sorrel King was a 32-year-old mother of four when her eighteen-month-old daughter, Josie, was horribly burned by water from a faulty water heater in the family’s new Baltimore home. She was taken to Johns Hopkinsrenowned as one of the best hospitals in the worldand Sorrel stayed in the hospital with Josie day-in and day-out until she had almost completely recovered. Just before her discharge, however, Sorrel noticed something was wrongJosie was looking pale, she appeared severely dehydrated, and her eyes were rolling back in her head. Sorrel pleaded with the doctors and nurses (many of whom she had become close to) that something was wrong, and they agreed to stop administering Josie methadone, the narcotic they were using to wean her off morphine. Josie had begun noticeably improving when a new nurse approached her with a syringe of methadone. When Sorrel tried to stop her from administering the drug, the nurse said that the orders had been changed again. Sorrel, against her better judgment, decided that Hopkins must know best, and stepped back. Almost as soon as the drug had been injected into Josie’s system, she went into cardiac arrest. The doctors raced to save her, but by the time they stabilized her, Josie was brain dead, her organs shutting down one by one. She passed away shortly thereafter, her family having made the choice to take her off life support.
In the days and months that followed, Sorrel went through the tumultuous processes of grieving. For a while, she thought she would not survive; suicide and alcohol both seemed like viable escape possibilities, and Sorrel toyed with both. But ultimately it was her rage that kept her aliverage at the doctors, at Hopkins, and at the medical institution that had allowed this to happen. She wanted the doctors to feel the same pain she had caused them. She wanted to destroy Hopkins brick by brick.” Dizzy with grief, she came close to ending her marriage, but slowly pulled herself and her life back together, for the sake of her family, and for the memory of Josie.
It was around this time that Sorrel learned a staggering factthough indeed an error, Josie’s death wasn’t a fluke in the statistical sense of the word. About 98,000 American patients die a year as the result of medical error, making it the fourth most prevalent cause of death in the US. Armed with this fact, the money from her settlement with Hopkins, and a vague awareness that Josie’s death could have been prevented, Sorrel began to penetrate the healthcare industry. An appearance on Good Morning America and a long article in the Baltimore Sun raised the public profiles of her and her mission, while speaking requests began to pour in from hospitals and healthcare groups across the world. For the most part, medical errors had simply not been talked about; most doctors involved in them were paralyzed by remorse and fear of lawsuits, while the patients were dead or badly injured and their families crippled by grief. Sorrel was helping to pull back the curtain on an all-too-common killer, and the world of healthcare knew it. Despite some initial resistance, most in the industry came to welcome her message, and to look to her for answers. With the help of other patient safety advocatesmany of them doctors, and some of them the very Hopkins officials who had defended the hospital after Josie’s deathSorrel and The Josie King Foundation began to develop and implement in hospitals basic programs that emphasize communication, respect of the patient, and attentiveness to their concerns. Rapid Response Teams, for instance, can be called from the beside by patients or their families who feel they are experiencing a serious change in their condition that is not getting sufficient attention from hospital floor staff. A team made up of doctors, nurses and a patient relations coordinator responds quickly to evaluate the patient and develop a plan for care. This is just one example of a program that came out of Sorrel’s efforts, and it’s in place in hospitals across the country, and has saved countless lives.
Sorrel’s account of her unlikely path from grieving parent to nationally renowned advocate is interwoven with descriptions of her and her family’s slow but steady road to recovery, and ends with a deeply affecting description of a ski trip they took recently. The sun is shining, her children are healthy, and they are all profoundly happya condition that Sorrel has learned to appreciate all the more for Josie.
The book ends with a resource guide for patients, their families, and healthcare providers; it includes information about how to best manage a hospital stay and how to handle a medical error if one does occur. Two prominent characters from the story, Hopkins’ lawyer Rick Kidwell and Paul Bekman, the personal injury attorney who handled the case for the King family, have come together to contribute advice in a Q&A section, and Sorrel also provides lists of general advice, useful online resources, and essential books on the subject.
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Read an Excerpt
By Sorrel King
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2009 Sorrel King
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was draining the spaghetti at our home in Richmond, Virginia, Josie sat in her swing playing with her little blue bear.
The phone rang and I could hear the excitement in Tony's voice when I picked up. A few weeks earlier he had been asked to run his bank's sales trading desk. It was a great opportunity for a thirty-two-year-old, but meant moving to Baltimore, where the company was headquartered. He was there now, in search of the perfect home. He had called to tell me he had found it.
"The house is old and definitely needs some work, but the land around it is beautiful," he said.
"So, is it a total dump or what?" I asked, pouring the spaghetti sauce onto the noodles.
"Well, yeah sort of," he admitted. He told me it had been a barn in the 1800s and then, in 1920, it had been converted into a house. "It's got green shingles and huge windows with that old, wavy glass that you like. If we want it, we need to sign the contract today."
"But what about the inside?" I asked.
"We can check it out during the inspection. If we wait until then, we'll lose it. It's the land. There's something about it that's kind of magical. It reminds me of Bruce Farm."
"Bruce Farm? It reminds you of Bruce Farm?"
"Yeah, it does. It really does," he said. "You're going to fall in love with this place."
In 1939, my mother's parents, in search of a summer escape from the city life of Washington, DC, found it when they stepped foot onto an old farm that sat at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Loudoun County, Virginia. The huge stone house with flagstone terraces, called the Big House, was surrounded by sprawling open lawns of Kentucky bluegrass. Fieldstone walls separated the manicured lawns from the pastures that were grazed by Black Angus cattle and horses. But the thing that took my grandparents' breath away when they stood on the farm for the first time was the view. From the front porch, I came to see and love what they saw that day: a pale green lawn gently sloping down to a stone wall, above which a panoramic view of multiple shades of blue burst as far as the eye could see, making you feel as if you were looking over the ocean. With a slight squint, you could see dairy farms, little towns, and country roads. With a telescope you could see the Washington Monument in the solid, earthy valley. This was God's country, and its name was Bruce Farm.
Bruce Farm was where my mother and her sister spent their summers and weekends, and as children my siblings and I did, too. It was a place where we were taught, like my mother had been, the meaning of hard work. Our mornings were spent weeding the vegetable garden, mucking out stalls, creosoting fences, and blazing trails. When the work was done we'd pull on our bathing suits, lace up our work boots, and run as fast as we could, with towels flying like superhero capes, across the lawn, over the stone wall, and down the dirt road to jump into the cool pond. Bruce Farm held a special place in all of our hearts.
Tony had been to Bruce Farm, and it got to him the same way it got to me. So, I could tell, as he described what he saw walking around the property in Baltimore, that he had fallen for the place for the same reasons that he knew I would, and that no matter how dilapidated the house was it would become our new home.
"Josie, it looks like we're going to live in an old green barn. What do you think about that?" I said, plopping a zwieback biscuit on the tray of her swing. She liked the Swiss cardboard-like crackers and sucked on them until they became mushy enough to squeeze in her fists. When she wanted a fresh one, she'd throw the wad of mush at Trapper, the smelly, thirteen-year-old Lab that no one in the family paid attention to anymore except Josie, who adored him. He'd catch the mush that came flying his way and she'd laugh from her swing, kick out her feet, and dangle her chubby zwieback-encrusted fingers in front of him. He'd lick them clean.
Josie was the youngest of four, our caboose. When I was a little girl, I always wanted to have four children. Maybe because I was one of four it was the perfect, even number, not too big, not too small. I loved being part of a big family. Everyone always had someone to play with; no one was ever left out. A life like The Brady Bunch or Eight Is Enough was right up my alley: the more confusion, the more chaos, the better.
With the birth of each of our children, driving home from the hospital was like Christmas morning. Everything was magical. But with Josie, there was more. It was July 3, a typical sweltering, humid, Virginia summer day. My mother insisted on driving, so the three of us-Tony, two-day-old Josie, and I-sat in the back seat as she slowly-ten miles below the speed limit, holding her breath, gritting her teeth, gripping the steering wheel-made her way down the highway.
I looked at Josie's tiny cheeks as she lay swaddled in the pink blanket that the hospital had given us. She had brown eyes and lots of brown hair with a cowlick that threw part of her hair straight up. Somehow, we had wedged her into the car seat without waking her. I was making mental notes, thinking that I had better tuck this away in the memory bank because this was it. No more babies. Josie completed us. I looked at Tony, who was smiling as he gazed down at Josie, probably having the same thought. Jack, Relly, and Eva were at home waiting for their new little sister. Soon we would all be together, at home for the first time. Four children. Perfect.
Richmond was home for me, where I had grown up and where my parents still lived, along with my brother, Mac, and sister Mary Earle. My younger sister Margaret was right up the road in Washington, DC. Tony and I had spent the previous year building a house in the country just outside of town, on a pretty slice of land next to my parents. From our house the children could walk down a little hill and then up a little hill and be at their grandparents, Big Rel and Pop's doorstep.
We had loved our home with its dark gray shingles and front porch that faced the western sky; nothing but horse pastures and hay fields framed our view as the sun set every evening. I had planted a bed of perennials and a tiny Carolina jasmine vine with hopes that the vine would climb up the front pillar of the house and shade the porch with fragrant yellow flowers. We had lived there for a little over a year when Tony was offered the promotion in Baltimore.
Our life in the countryside of Virginia was perfect, but Tony and I both agreed that we were too young to say to ourselves: this is where we'll be forever. The children were not yet entrenched in school and so we decided to take a chance. It would be an adventure, we told ourselves. "We can rent the house in Virginia out and if we don't like Baltimore we can come home," Tony promised me. And so we decided to leave our family and friends and the home that we had worked so hard to build, and start a new life in Baltimore.
A few weeks after Tony had signed the contract, we drove to Baltimore to look at our new house-a house I had never seen. My parents took care of Jack, Relly, and Eva, and we took Josie so that I could continue nursing her. Tony and I had been to Baltimore together once before and had spent no more than a few hours with the realtor, driving around the neighborhoods, trying to get a feel for the place. Here we were, buying a house, knowing practically nothing about the city.
It was early October when we turned onto Kayhill Lane, in Baltimore. Through the changing leaves I saw a rolling lawn topped by a pretty, green-shingled farmhouse, shaped like a saltbox, with a gambrel roof and an awkward hay-bale-pitching window in the center.
In the mailbox we found a note from the current owner.
Dear Tony and Sorrel,
I hope this old house provides you with many happy memories. In the early 1900s, it was a barn and was called Ashline.
A house with a name. This was going to be good. I strapped Josie into her front carrier and we headed in with the realtor.
It was inspection day and lots of people scurried about carrying clipboards. The living room was amazing: high ceilings, an old mantelpiece, and a bay window flanked by huge windows, each with twelve panes of beautiful, old, wavy glass, just like Tony had said. It helped that Mrs. Cunningham, who hadn't moved out yet, had good taste, and this room was a showcase of her antiques and artwork. The dining room was equally as elegant, with two large French doors that opened out onto a redbrick terrace. This was definitely a grown-up house, and I was not quite sure what we were doing in it. I was beginning to wonder why no one else had bought the place.
The realtor saved the worst for last-the worst being the rest of the house. The kitchen was tiny, split into three little sections. There was no place for a kitchen table and hardly any room to cook. Most appalling of all, there was green carpet everywhere. As we moved upstairs the situation did not improve. The bathrooms had various wires sticking out, the bedrooms were small, and the hallways were slanted, giving the doorways a cockeyed look. The basement had signs of water damage. Ashline was not looking so hot anymore.
"Do you think there's any way we can get out of this?" I whispered into Tony's ear.
"It's not so bad. We can live with it and then fix it up," he said as Josie reached for him. He took her from me and led me outside. "You're going to love this part."
Hearing Tony, the realtor took his cue. "Don't you love it?" he asked a little too enthusiastically, leaning close to me with bright, excited eyes. "I've got the name of a great contractor who can fix some of this stuff," he added, holding the front door open for me.
The land was spectacular and as I walked around looking at the old boxwoods, the pretty dogwoods, the tulip poplars, the ash tree that longed to have swings hanging from its branches, and the rolling lawns I could see why Tony had fallen for the place. Along with the house came a little barn that backed on to Lake Roland, an old city reservoir that had lots of walking paths around it. The view out of every window made you feel as if you were in the country, yet the schools were five minutes away and there was a Starbucks practically within walking distance.
"Should we go for it?" Tony asked, handing Josie back to me.
As we stood on the redbrick terrace looking over the lawn, I could feel a hint of Bruce Farm about the old place. I told him I was in if he was.
"What do you think of your new house, little monkey?" Tony said, squeezing Josie's yellow-socked feet as he leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. He put his arm around me and we stood there, the three of us. "I think we're gonna like it here," he said.
As we headed to the car the inspectors informed us that we better take a good look at the Terminix contract because there was definitely some termite damage in the front portion of the house.
"Don't worry," the realtor said. "My contractor does termites, too."
Excerpted from Josie's Story by Sorrel King Copyright © 2009 by Sorrel King. Excerpted by permission.
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Inspiring and touching story that eveyone inside of healthcare should be required to read.
This was a very well presented story of an example of what can happen in a hospital stay. It is very well presented and she has done a wonderful job of taking a sad experience and doing something positive. A must read for anyone in the medical field and also for anyone who may be hospitalized. She has a lot of good references and ways to help anyone become more proactive in their health care.
I had to read this for my HOSA event (medical reading). I liked it a lot.
loved this book. what an inspiration to us all.
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