Rodd and Kellie Joseph would have scoured the globe to find a cure for their infant son Ryland, who in April was diagnosed with the rare genetic disease Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.
But they actually didn't have to look any farther than UC San Francisco's Benioff Children's Hospital, just two hours south of their Lake County Home. Ranked among the best Wiskott-Aldrich treatment centers in the world, it cures scores of patients each year. That boded well for 7-month-old Ryland.
On April 17, Ryland was admitted to the hospital for a bone marrow transplant, performed the first week in May. On May 10, the doctors announced that Ryland's new marrow had grafted successfully, and that he was almost ready to go home. The Josephs were exultant.
But two days later the boy was sick again, afflicted with another unusual condition that had nothing to do with his original diagnosis.
On May 16, he died of Legionnaire's Disease, later attributed to bacteria in the hospital's water pipes. The Josephs, who both serve as police officers, requested an autopsy. In October they filed a wrongful death suit against the UC Regents.
"We went there to save our son," Rodd Joseph says, his voice quavering as he recounts the tick-tock of Ryland's death. "Not to bury him."
Although Legionnaire's disease is not particularly common -- it leads to between 8,000 and 18,000 hospitalizations per year, according to the Center for Disease Control -- it does have a rather sordid history at UCSF Hospital. The Josephs and their attorneys uncovered two cases that had occurred there since 1992, one of them in the very room where Ryland was quarantined. They believe that infectious bacteria are percolating through the faucets.
"There's a bug in that building," Rodd Joseph insists. "[It] killed our son."
But the hospital's Chief Medical Officer Josh Adler insists that its pipes are clean. "No other hospital-acquired cases of Legionnella infections have been identified at UCSF or in San Francisco over the past two years," Adler says in an official statement, adding that the city and state's Departments of Public Health launched investigations shortly after Ryland's death, and left no stone -- or sink -- unturned.
Of the "numerous" water samples tested, none were tainted by Legionnella, he says. Like most counties, San Francisco treats its water supply with monochloramine, and UCSF takes further steps by continuously heating its water to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
That hasn't deterred the Josephs' Baltimore-based attorney Steven Heisler, who has helped file claims against hotels, spas, swimming pools, and public drinking fountains throughout the nation, all of which are crawling with pestilent bacteria, he says. Though most suits conclude in monetary settlements, he hopes this one will have a broader public impact.
"We'd like for this not to happen to anyone's child again," Heisler says.
Rodd Joseph agrees. He says he's still grateful to the hospital staff who cured Ryland. "They saved my son," he says. "The building killed him."