'Josie's Story' Offers a Poignant Look at Medical Errors in the United States
“Josie’s Story: A Mother’s Inspiring Crusade to Make Medical Care Safe”
Sorrel King, Nonfiction, 2009, Grove Press/Grove Atlantic
In a paper published by the British Medical Journal in 2016, Professors Martin Makary and Michael Daniel of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine state that “if medical error was a disease, it would rank as the third leading cause of death in the US,” behind cancer and heart disease. The authors found that approximately 250,000 deaths occur by medical error every year, compared to 585,000 deaths per year from cancer and 611,000 from heart disease. What’s more, the authors state that their estimate of medical error deaths is likely a gross underestimate.
In Josie’s Story, Sorrel King retells the tragic series of events leading to her daughter’s death. As the King family settled into a new house in Baltimore, Maryland, Josie, only 1 year old at the time, scalded herself on water from a faulty water heater. The family rushed to the best hospital nearby, Johns Hopkins, where she was quickly stabilized. After a few weeks of slow recovery, with meticulous and diligent help from Sorrel, Josie started to improve. Josie’s conditioned improved dramatically, and Sorrel convinced the nurses and physicians to halt administration of pain medication. Unfortunately, a new nurse mistakenly administered methadone, the very drug that the medical team decided to stop a few days prior. Josie quickly deteriorated until ultimately, she died.
After months of grieving, Sorrel King decided to try to improve patient safety and recognition of medical errors in the medical system. She began to travel around the country, telling Josie’s story. She received letters from the nurses and doctors she spoke to saying how much they appreciated her story; on top of these letters, she was inundated with stories of other medical errors and resulting tragic family losses. Throughout her journey, she changed her attitude towards Johns Hopkins from complete animosity towards understanding and cooperation. She realized that instead of being angry at the system, she should work with the hospital to prevent future mistakes. By the end, Sorrel helped to bring about real institutional change in medical systems across the United States.
For me, Josie’s Story is an immersive look at death and recovery. The vivid storytelling in this book allowed me to witness the King family’s despondency as they saw their youngest daughter in the hospital, to feel the same gut-wrenching feeling Sorrel had when her daughter took a turn for the worst, and to express the same feeling of contempt for a medical system that allowed Josie to die. Yet at the conclusion of Josie’s Story, I could feel the momentum Sorrel had gained in her movement to decrease hospital errors and improve patient safety.
At the same time, Josie’s Story showed me a side of medicine I’ve never known about. I recognize that to err is human, but here, a simple wrong decision led to major, irreversible consequences. Sorrel’s fight against the seemingly pervasive errors in medicine represents a conversation that needs to be had about involving families in medical decision making. Indeed, one of the major positive outcomes from her campaign was the creation of “Condition Help”, a patient- or family-activated rapid response team of doctors and nurses if the family felt that something was awry. At the time of publication, 69% of calls to Condition Help, “prevented harmful patient situations” (208).
Josie’s Story gives a novel look into the struggles many go through with their health. Through this devastating event, Sorrel King has effected change in the medical community. While Sorrel’s efforts are notable, the struggle to eliminate medical errors is far from over.
- Martin A. Makary and Michael Daniel, “Medical Error—the Third Leading Cause of Death in the US,” BMJ 353 (May 3, 2016): i2139, doi:10.1136/bmj.i2139.