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2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

Miami skyline viewed through palm trees.

Enjoy fun in the sun during Life@50+, May 14-16, 2015

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Dennis Quaid's Quest

After his infant twins nearly died from an accidental drug overdose, the actor found a bold new mission.

Dennis Quaid

— Art Streiber

In early 2008 Dennis and Kimberly established the Quaid Foundation, which called for hospitals to adopt bedside bar coding, requiring scans on patient's wristbands to match scans on medications. "It's based on the same technology that you have at every gas station and grocery store in America," Quaid says. "If it's the wrong medicine or the wrong patient, an alarm goes off." Shortly after, Quaid met Charles Denham, M.D., a leader in the patient-safety movement and founder and chair of the nonprofit Texas Medical Institute of Technology (TMIT), which tests systems to improve health care safety. The son of a NASA rocket scientist and a jet pilot himself, Denham bonded with Quaid over their mutual enthusiasm for aviation—they own the same-model jet (a Citation). "We were a perfect team," Denham says. "We both believe that this is what we're supposed to do and that we can save lives doing it."

The Quaids folded their foundation into TMIT this year. "There are thousands of people who have been victims, whose voices have never been heard," says Quaid. "We're now coming together and demanding that something happen." To that end, Quaid is narrating a series of documentaries produced by Denham about medical harm, which TMIT is distributing free of charge to every hospital in the country. The first in the series, "Chasing Zero: Winning the War on Healthcare Harm" (available for free download from TMIT's website, safetyleaders.org), tells the stories of medical-error victims (including Sue Sheridan), as well as providers who have made mistakes.

One of them is Julie Thao, a Madison, Wisconsin, single mother of four, who spent 20 years as a nurse specializing in obstetrics and perinatal bereavement and loss counseling. "This was where I found my true validation in life," says Thao. All that changed in early July 2006. After working an 18-and-a-half-hour double shift, resting briefly, then starting a new shift, she connected what she thought was an IV antibiotic to a 16-year-old pregnant patient whose labor was about to be induced. The IV bag she hung, which looked identical to the antibiotic bag, actually contained an epidural solution that is fatal if put in the bloodstream. Within moments, the patient's heart stopped. Doctors performed an emergency C-section and saved her baby boy, but they could not resuscitate the mother.

Thao, charged with manslaughter, ultimately settled for a misdemeanor, requiring her to serve a year of probation and restricting her from practicing nursing until February 2013. But worse than any court-mandated punishment is her agonizing guilt. For months after the incident, "all I wanted was death," Thao says. "For so many years I'd been the one who took into my arms the mothers whose children had been taken from them. Now I was the one who took a child from its mother."

Thao got back on her feet, in part after Denham offered her a position at TMIT. She now speaks at health care safety conferences, sharing her story and emphasizing that health care providers are human and will, under a variety of circumstances, make mistakes.

"We're not here to denigrate health care workers," says Quaid. "They've dedicated their lives to treating human suffering—and they're overworked."

"We are treating sicker and sicker patients, faster and faster, with more complex treatments requiring more specialization, which fragments the care even more," says Denham. "And we're cutting corners due to cost containment. We don't have bad people. We have bad systems."

Quaid and Denham are now calling on hospitals to invest in a set of 34 practices (called the National Quality Forum Safe Practices for Better Healthcare)—everything from simple checklists to computerized infection control. "Our community-hospital boardrooms decide where the money is spent and whether it goes to patient safety," says Denham. Quaid and Denham also believe an oversight agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) should be established to monitor and investigate medical accidents, and that reimbursements for care be tied to providers' safety records.

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