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Eddie Bernice Johnson’s family says medical neglect led to former congresswoman’s death

The family of the recently retired congresswoman says Johnson contracted an infection at Baylor Scott & White’s rehabilitation facility that led to her death.
Posted: 1:39 PM, Jan 04, 2024
Updated: 2024-01-04 14:39:24-05

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TEXAS (Texas Tribune) — Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson died a “terrible, painful death” from an infection caused by negligence at her Dallas recovery facility following a September back surgery, according to a statement Thursday from Johnson’s family outlining their intention to file a lawsuit.

The family notified Baylor Scott & White Health System and Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation of their intention to sue on the grounds of medical negligence. A wound from a September back surgery became infected when the congresswoman was left to lie in her own feces in her bed for hours at the rehab center while she repeatedly asked for help that didn’t come, according to attorneys for the family. If a settlement is not reach in the next 60 days, a lawsuit will be filed.

After undergoing more surgery to treat the infection, Johnson, 89, died with hospice care at her home on New Year’s Eve.

“We are shocked about the careless disregard for my mother’s care and wellbeing at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation. The name Baylor indicates a certain level of professionalism and the nursing staff and management fall far below a standard of medical care, especially in this situation,” Kirk Johnson, the congresswoman’s son, said in the statement. “I asked Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation CEO Mr. [David] Smith ‘Is this how you would like your mother treated? Is this customary treatment for anyone’s mother?’”

“Out of respect for patient privacy, we must limit our comments at this time," Matt Olivolo, a spokesman for Baylor Scott & White Health, said in an emailed statement.

A towering Dallas political figure — once a nurse, state legislator and congresswoman — Johnson was the dean of the Texas Congressional delegation before retiring from office in 2023. She proved effective at her work due to her long tenure serving in the U.S. House — nearly 30 years at the time of her passing — and a pragmatist streak that made her open to working with Republicans.

Born in Waco, Johnson became one of the most powerful Texas Democrats in recent memory to serve on Capitol Hill. She was the lone Texas-based committee chair in either chamber when she became the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

She was the first Black woman elected to any seat in Dallas, she was the first nurse and Black Dallasite to serve in Congress, and she was only the third Texas woman to represent the state in the U.S. House.

Her retirement last year came after serving 15 terms representing her district, which included Dallas County and surrounding areas.

In September, Johnson went to Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation to recover from back surgery, according to Weisbrod’s Thursday statement.

On Sept. 21, her son, Kirk Johnson, visited her and found her lying unattended in her bed in her own feces and urine, the statement said. There were no nurses at the nursing station when he went to find help, the statement said.

“She had been pushing the call button for a prolonged amount of time begging for help. No one had responded,” the statement said.

He found an administrator and his mother was cleaned up and assigned a different caretaker.

“[CEO] Mr. [David] Smith appeared concerned as he had witnessed and smelled the horrid situation,” the statement says. “According to Mr. Johnson, Mr. Smith’s response was ‘This shouldn’t have happened.’”

The congresswoman’s orthopedic surgeon who had performed her back operation noted complications that she was having three days later that were directly related to that incident — an infection that eventually required surgery to fix, according to Weisbrod.

She was then moved to a skilled nursing facility to recover from that surgery, but then moved home in mid-December for hospice care, the statement said. She died shortly after. The statement did not list a cause of death.

The family wants justice for a woman they said spent her career fighting for others, Weisbrod said in the statement.

The former registered nurse “asked me to pursue this case for her weeks before she passed,” Weisbrod said. “Eddie Bernice Johnson always sought consensus and peaceful resolutions, but she stood up for her rights and those of everyone she represented.”

"Eddie Bernice Johnson’s family says medical neglect led to former congresswoman’s death" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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