The Death of Rory Staunton and the Power of the Press

On July 11, 2012 a heartbreaking story about a 12-year-old boy, Rory Staunton, who died on April 1 at NYU Langone Medical Center of severe septic shock, appeared in the The New York Times. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Dwyer, the article set off an intense debate online and within the medical community over the actions of the physicians involved in the treatment of the boy, the motivations of author Dwyer (who had met Rory and knew his uncle), and ultimately called into question the integrity of the Medical Center itself.

Rory had cut his arm diving for a basketball at his school gym in late March. The wound was not severe, but he soon began complaining about other symptoms, including fever, nausea and a pain in his leg. Initially diagnosed with a stomach bug, Rory had actually developed a serious infection and eventually went into septic shock, experienced organ failure and died. A blood test taken in the emergency room showed high levels of cells associated with bacterial infections, but the results were apparently never seen by the doctors who discharged Rory, his parents or his referring pediatrican. Dwyer’s well-researched article drew thousands of comments online, many of them from doctors who called into question how a “layperson” like Dwyer had the audacity to vilify doctors when he lacked medical training. Other people were shocked at the level of miscommunication at NYU Langone, and between the doctors there and Rory’s regular pediatrician. In the middle was Dwyer, who to his credit calmly replied to many of the comments to help clarify facts and supply further information.

Meanwhile, NYU Langone issued a statement of apology but otherwise had been quiet on the matter, no doubt on the advice of its legal team. But last week, on July 18, the hospital announced a new checklist had been established to ensure doctors and nurses have conducted “a final review of all critical lab results and patient vital signs” before a patient leaves, spokeswoman Lisa Greiner said. In the event of the patient being discharged before the test results are determined, the patient will be called and the results will be shared with the referring physician. In addition, a consortium of 55 hospitals that has developed tactics for early diagnosis of sepsis will place a greater focus on pediatric patients, said Brian Conway, a spokesman for the Greater New York Hospital Association.

These after-the-fact actions may bring some solace to Rory’s parents, who told Dwyer that their son would not want other kids to go through the same experience. Yet the story of Rory Staunton does beg this question: Would NYU Langone have taken this action if Rory’s death would not have been given front-page treatment by one of the most influential newspapers in the world? I think not.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01