Josie King: A Drink of Water

 A Drink of Water

Meanwhile, down in Pediatrics, they were preparing the groundwork for the launch of the Josie King Patient Safety Program. Josie King was 18 months old when she was taken to Hopkins after being scalded in a bathtub accident in February 2001, a year before Pam’s encounter with the culture of safety.

“She healed well and within weeks was scheduled for release,” Josie’s mother, Sorrel, writes on the Josie King Foundation website.

But something was wrong. Josie seemed to be very thirsty all the time, eagerly seeking moisture from any available source. Sorrell King knew her daughter was desperately thirsty, and she wanted to give her water, but was told she couldn’t. She deferred to the experts.

The little girl died from dehydration.

The summer 2004 online issue of Hopkins Medicine features a story called A Remedy of Errors, an audacious work of public relations, which I predict one day will make it to the University of Spin as a textbook example of how to write when you’ve been handed a lemon of a story:

“Out of a deadly medical mistake at Hopkins Hospital sprang a patient safety effort that has united a bereaved parent with malpractice lawyers, physicians and nurses.”

The story starts out with a visit to the home of Josie’s parents by the Director of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Dr. George Dover: “What could he possibly say to this man and woman whose 18-month-old daughter had died at Hopkins just days earlier, not of some rare, incurable disease but of thirst?”

“We knew what had happened,” says Sorrell King. “We wanted someone to tell us why—why didn’t they listen to us when we said something was wrong with Josie, why didn’t they give her something to drink? We were involved with our lawyer then. We were going for it. If George had said, ‘We’re not sure what happened,’ we would have thrown him out.”

George knew exactly what to say.

The Kings had hired Paul D. Bekman, who is usually specialized in dealing with work injury lawyers in phoenix AZ.  Hopkins was faced with the nightmare prospect of a junkyard dog like Bekman holding the personal injury lawyer’s straight flush: a slam dunk case involving the death of a child—a child of the upper middle class. Hopkins definitely wanted to stop the King family from “going for it.”

“My husband, our lawyer and George were holding me back from going to the newspapers,” says Sorrell. So when Doc Dover visited the King family at their home on that “windy March Sunday,” he was all contrition.  Hopkins was quick to settle with the Kings for an undisclosed sum and they agreed to help set up the Josie King Foundation. They did not do these things because it was the right thing to do. They did them because there was nothing else they could do.  There was no blaming the victim in this case. There were no consent forms or technicalities to hide behind.

They had killed a pretty little girl.


As president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital back in 1999 Ron Peterson was a hard charging executive with an eye for innovation—and he had a special interest in patient safety because his father died by medical mistake. One day he read a report from the Institute of Medicine which detailed the sad state of patient safety in America. One hundred thousand people a year died from medical mistakes and some of those tragic deaths might have been prevented. According to the Baltimore Sun, Ron Peterson “understood the report’s call to action.” What was needed was a plan, a grand plan to make patient safety not merely a top priority at the Hopkins—but The Number One Priority.

As Josie King lay dying for want of a drink of water two years later, Peterson and other Hopkins visionaries were “still hammering out their plans” for patient safety.

If patient safety wasn’t The Number One Priority at Johns Hopkins Medicine, what was?

It was and is the same number one priority of any business: to make money. And the business model is this: Aggressively projecting and protecting the image of being the best hospital in America, and using that reputation to attract patients, who are treated by underpaid and overworked students of medicine. The big names lure them in and the residents and interns, who covet the Hopkins name for their resumes, do the work for dirt metered out by corporate medicine.


The Baltimore Sun ran a feature story about the Josie King tragedy.  Hopkins management responded with righteous outrage at their own failings, and a declaration of resolve to do better.

“Josie died of a Third World disease—dehydration—in the best hospital in the world,” said Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, a Hopkins physician and patient safety expert, whose father had been the victim of a medical mistake. “How could that possibly happen? The answer is, we’ve created a system that’s allowed it to happen.”

Proclamations were issued from on High:

“I want everybody in the hospital empowered to be able to pull a cord and stop the assembly line when they see something unsafe,” said Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University.

There were mea culpas and calls for accountability:

“This is my hospital. This happened on my watch,” said Dr. George Dover. “This is my responsibility. I’ll get to the bottom of it.” Dover said that what had happened to Josie was a sentinel event – an unexpected occurrence resulting in serious injury or death. He said a committee would be formed to review what had happened and recommend ways to correct any problems.

And, to demonstrate sincerity and a willingness to go the extra mile, Dr. Dover promised that the hospital would try not to cover anything up.

“By June 2001, four months after Josie died, Hopkins had finished its review and told Sorrel and Tony what they had known all along: Josie’s death had resulted from a total breakdown of the system,” the Sun reported. “Three weeks into her recovery, the child had suffered devastating brain damage after her heart stopped because of severe dehydration. The medical staff hadn’t responded appropriately to the warning signs—her precipitous weight loss, severe diarrhea, intense thirst and lethargy.”

Dr. Dover may have taken full responsibility for the senseless death of Josie King, but when the internal investigation finally got to the bottom of it all, they found that a temp nurse should take the fall: “the committee concluded that the temporary agency nurse tending to Josie the  day her heart stopped should have been more aggressive in alerting physicians to the child’s symptoms.” Richard P. Kidwell, Hopkins’ managing attorney for claims and litigation, said, “The information was there, but no one really put it all together.”

Kidwell later revealed that the committee’s investigation had determined that the desperately desiccated Josie King should have been given a drink of water.

However, as the Baltimore Sun said, out of tragedy sprang a passion for safety, and the desire for Johns Hopkins to become the world leader in patient safety. The Josie King Foundation would light the way of safe passage for all the sick and injured in the dicey environs of John Hopkins Medicine.  And then…

6 Responses to Josie King: A Drink of Water

  1. robin m says:

    Several things bother me about this article. Since I am a medical professional. 18 month old’s can do several things, but very few can sit in scalding water while it burns 60% of her body. Do you realize how much of the child that is? The other problem, is that even an injured 18 month old, would get out of the tub. Another problem is if she had the knowledge to turn on the faucet, would she not of been able to turn it off? Where was mom? I am not debating the negligence by the hospital on several counts. Most burn victims have IV’s or cut downs, particularly children. Also, monitoring a child’s electrolytes which is essential for their well being since it can change so dramatically, is paramount. Was this case investigated by child services. Everything about this smacks of Munchausen’s syndrome. The child’s injuries/the circumstances/even the mother being with the child incessantly, (does not mention if dad spent that type of time with the child) Did this mom have another child, after this? I am sure John Hopkins did not debate the issue due to their faults. Has anyone ever taken a look at her other children’s health concerns, doctor visits? Nothing about this sits right.

    • Beth D says:

      You should research this case further. The parents were cleared on every front. They had moved into a new home with a faulty water heater. How dare you suggest the Mother did this, without investigation. I also suggest you look into the work the Josie King foundation has done. Sorrel still works and speaks out and for her daughter.

    • anonymous says:

      I agree that just as the kings scrutinize the health care system, they can scrutinize themselves in their role. If they knew of the faulty water system, then measures to keep their toddler away from reachable faucets should have been taken.

      Hospitals will ALWAYS have errors and wrongful deaths because humans will always make errors. Citizens should do their parts too.

      • The Kings had just moved in their fixer-upper old house.
        They were unaware that the water heater was faulty. It was discovered after the accident, by the police/an expert.
        The water was 150 degrees instead of the 120 degrees indicated.

        The (old) tub was empty, the child tried to retrieve a toy that had been left in earlier, climbed in the tub, wanted the toy – a little boat – to float again, and opened the H faucet.
        When confronted with the scalding water the toddler became unable to turn it off. Maybe she slipped and fell trying to get out.

        Sorrel King has suffered, is suffering, will suffer because of Josie’s death, for the rest of her life.
        She does not need unfounded innuendos.

    • rc says:

      I am a medical professional too and thought I was the only one with the same concerns..I diagnosed one of the first cases of Munchhausens in my state.
      I doubt that an 18 month old would turn on a faucet and climb into the tub. she would have stood up as soon as the scalding water touched her body so how could she get burns on back, chest and face?
      if the hot water is on, the tub will fill slowly—she would have screamed enogh for someone to hear.They mention a faulty heater but also say her other children and Mom took a bath in the same tub earlier.
      What was the mom feeding the child in the hospital? At one point, this 18 month old downed two canfuls(are you serious?) of juice sometime before she died. What was in it?This mom was overinvolved in the hospital, overfriendly with the staff, very smart–I think Johns Hopkins dropped the ball big time.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is so sad. I’m a parent and can’t imagine the anger and frustration you must have felt as you attempted over and over to get help. I pray I never overlook the obvious in my career. Thank you for sharing such a tragic story.

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