Sorrel King is a patient-safety advocate and cofounder of the Josie King Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at increasing patient safety and eliminating medical errors. She wrote Josie's Story after the death of her 18-month old daughter—a death caused by poor communication between medical personnel at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the failure of doctors and nurses to respond to Sorrel's concerns. The Kings live with their children in Baltimore, Maryland.
Read Donna's review of Josie's Story for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Donna Remmert & Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 11/24/2009
Writing a book like Josie's Story clearly took enormous courage. What aspect of it was most difficult for you?
The book really did seem to write itself at times. Throughout the process I knew that this was meant to be. Writing about my emotions, the things I saw came easily. Sometimes it was scary because I knew I was not only putting myself out there but also my family, Tony and the children. I worked hard to be fair and protect our privacy, while also being honest and doing justice to Josie's story and everything else that followed.
What in your personal background gave you the spunk, the courage, the ability to challenge an institution as renowned as Johns Hopkins hospital? Did your educational training contribute? Did your upbringing contribute? What else?
As children we always had to work hard. We spent our summers clearing trails, weeding gardens and painting fences. We did have fun, but hard work was just a part of who we were and my parents always stressed that. As far as having the courage to challenge Hopkins—I really don't look at what I did as courageous. It was just something I had to do. I was so mad and so sad that fear was really not something I ever felt or thought about. What I did was not something I had learned about in textbooks or school. My father always told us that whatever you do in life you have to be passionate about it. I was passionate about preventing medical errors and I worked hard and did not back down.
In Josie's Story you mention the various ways in which you sought help for yourself, beyond the support you received from your family and friends, as you grieved the loss of your daughter. Can you identify which of these aids helped the most? To what degree did writing Josie's Story or writing in your journal help?
I tried everything. I wanted to get better. I wanted the pain to go away. I had a grief therapist. I read every book I could find about losing a child. I hired a guitar teacher. I painted furniture and I wrote. All of these things helped me, some more than others. The painting and guitar helped to get my mind off of the grief for little bits of time. My grief therapist Sandra was great because I could cry and talk about it over and over again. She listened to me, sympathized and helped me. Writing was good because as I wrote I think I processed things. I worked through emotions.
You write about your husband, whose grieving process was different from yours. This was Tony's story, too—how difficult was it to write about him, and about the effect of Josie's death on your relationship?
After I had finished my first full draft my editor came back and told me I needed to have more of Tony in the book. I felt awkward writing about him. I didn't want to write about his feelings because they were his—not mine—to share but I brought him in because this was his story, too. I decided to just lay it all out on paper—all the personal stuff and then I could go back and cut. Once I got it down and Tony was okay with it I realized that I needed to leave it all, because it was part of the journey
In the book, you sometimes admit to not knowing what your actions would accomplish, that you were merely going forward one day at a time with no overall plan. Looking back, do you have any regrets regarding the ways in which you challenged Johns Hopkins Hospital and worked toward the formation of the Josie King Foundation? How hard was it to write about this?
I have no regrets about how I challenged Hopkins. I don't really feel like I challenged them. Rather I asked them, begged them, gave them money. I wanted to bring about change, prevent what happened to Josie from ever happening to another child again, but I tried to do it in a nice way. Writing about the work and the advocacy part of the book was a bit harder than writing about my emotions. The emotional part just came from my heart and onto the computer. When writing about the patient safety work I had to remember facts and try to keep it interesting.
Can you offer advice to other parents about how to communicate with children while still grieving? How honest should parents be about what happened and how they feel, especially when their children are young, the ages of your children? Do you think (or hope) that, when they grow to adults, Josie's Story will help them understand?
I think it is important to let children see that you are sad and that it is okay to cry and talk about it. For awhile my grief began taking me away from my children. It was overtaking my life. You have to find a balance and I finally did. The children could see me cry, but they also needed to see my laugh and see the old mom they once knew. Jack was 6, Relly 5, Eva 3. They were really young and I think it was confusing for them. Some things we chose not to explain. Some things you just need to hold onto until the time is right. I think Josie's Story is already helping them understand.
Before the tragic incident your family experienced, you were a full-time mom. Now, you are a nationally renowned patient advocate. When you miss an event in your children's lives—a soccer game, a school performance—because of your travel schedule, how do you explain it to them? On balance, do you think they have gained as much as they've lost by witnessing your courage, strength and competency as a patient-safety advocate?
I try to miss as little as possible, always flying in and out on the same day. Yes, sometimes I do miss a game or an event, but their dad is there and they know that I am doing the foundation work. No, they have not gained as much as they have lost...none of us have. We have learned to live our lives without Josie. I hope that my children have learned that when bad things happen we have to find a way to make something good come out of it and that can take years and lots of hard work.
How has the publication of Josie's Story changed your life?
It has made things a little bit busier, but I don't let it take over. I'm hearing from people all around the country. It makes me happy to know that the book is making a difference.
What's next for you? Do you have another book project in mind?
I would love to write another book. With Josie's Story I had a clear story to tell and a purpose for telling it. The purpose—to raise awareness about patient safety—was what drove me. I really do find the healthcare industry fascinating. I have been to some amazing hospitals and seen some incredible things. As I continue to travel around the country, I am still keeping a journal, writing down the stories of the nurses and doctors and patients making our health care system better. I'm not sure if it will turn into something for publication, but I'll always keep writing.