SPEAKING OU T Dennis Quaid testified about
his children’s overdose before the House
Committee on Oversight and Government
Reform in May 2008. Below: Late last year the
actor and his wife, Kimberly, stepped out with
the twins for a show in Los Angeles. Charles
Denham, M.D., has joined forces with Quaid
to find ways to reduce medical mistakes.
bedsides. They even watched the next morning as a nurse
dispensed a substance into their IVs. She explained that it
was Hep-Lock, routinely used to prevent blood clots at IV
sites. Without knowing it, the new parents had just witnessed the first of two overdoses of heparin (the next given
several hours later when the IV bags needed changing).
That evening, exhausted, the couple finally headed
home. They were sitting in their living room, trying to unwind, when suddenly, at 9 p.m., Kimberly panicked, repeatedly saying, “They’re passing. The kids are passing.” Quaid
thought she was reacting from fatigue, but he phoned the
hospital and spoke to the on-duty nurse, who told him the
twins were fine. Quaid believes the nurse probably knew
about the overdose then but had been told not to notify
them because they needed rest. “Our kids could have died
that night,” says Quaid, “and
we wouldn’t have been there
At 6 o’clock the next morning, after a fitful sleep, the couple
returned to the hospital, where they learned of the overdose.
As they rushed to be with the twins, they were intercepted
by representatives from Cedars-Sinai’s risk-management
division. “That’s a team of lawyers, because the hospital is
concerned about liability and not as much about the health
and welfare of our kids,” a still outraged Quaid says today.
Later, when the couple looked into the frequency of medical
errors, they learned that U.S. hospitals are not required to publicly report errors, and that caregivers often conceal mistakes
to avoid malpractice lawsuits. But a landmark 1999 report by
the Institute of Medicine showed that 100,000 deaths occur
in the United States each year as a result of health care harm.
That report, coupled with a 2007 Centers for Disease Control
report that an additional 99,000 people die annually from
hospital-acquired infections, led the Quaids to deduce that
health care harm is in fact the third-leading cause of death in
the United States. As a jet pilot, Quaid uses an aviation analogy
to drive home the numbers. “That’s the equivalent of 20 jet
airliners full of passengers going down every week,” he says.
A handful of victims have spoken out about the problem—
among them Sue Sheridan of Boise, Idaho. Her son, Cal, now
15, was insufficiently treated for jaundice as an infant and
now suffers from a constellation of symptoms—cerebral
palsy and auditory and vision impairment—known as
kernicterus. Four years after Cal failed to be properly
treated, Sheridan’s husband, Patrick, was diagnosed with a
benign brain tumor; a follow-up pathology report indicating
that the tumor was malignant was misfiled, and Patrick, late
to begin treatment, lost his battle with cancer in 2002.
Today Sheridan heads up two nonprofit organizations
to address medical errors. One of them, Parents of Infants
and Children with Kernicterus (PICK), has succeeded in
requiring hospitals to test babies for jaundice before release.
Another is working to require health care providers to notify
patients directly of their pathology results.
When she read about what had happened to the Quaid
twins, Sheridan says, “I had this sense of hope that somebody
of Dennis’s stature and celebrity, who’d witnessed the fear
and horror that I had, would speak up. And he did.”
Once the twins were stabilized, their father looked at them,
each in a tiny Isolette, and felt an overpowering sense of grati-
tude. “They were finally sleeping,” Quaid says. At that moment
he made a vow—to help ensure that what happened to his ba-
bies would never happen to anyone else. “I thought, ‘They’re
12 days old, and they’re going to change the world.’ ”
After launching an investigation into how the overdose
occurred, Quaid learned that nurses had twice mistakenly
given each infant a 10,000-unit dose of heparin, used to treat
illnesses in adults, instead of a similarly packaged 10-unit
dose called Hep-Lock, appropriate for use in IVs for infants.
Three infants at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis had died
a year earlier from the exact same overdose. Soon after, Baxter
Healthcare Corporation, manufacturer (CONTINUED ON PAGE 90)
HOW TO SAVE
Take charge of your health care. For tips, checklists, and practical advice
on protecting against medical mistakes, go to aarp.org/medicalmanager.