A few days before Halloween, 7-year-old Jessie Geyer began to feel lousy. She had a high fever and severe leg pain. It was bad enough feeling sick, but the second grader worried that she might have to miss out on the Halloween parade at her school, as well as trick-or-treating.
Her illness worsened and she realized she would have to miss the fun. But the ever-cheerful little girl told her Mom to make sure to save her costume for next year. "She was in such good spirits," her Mom, Michelle Geyer, says.
Before the week was out, Jessie had died. She was a victim of sepsis, which both her pediatrician and the emergency room doctor who treated her failed to diagnose. An antibiotic could have saved her.
Her parents, Mark and Michelle Geyer, are still trying to get on with their lives, after experiencing the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Jessie's younger brothers also continue to struggle.
The effort to find accountability in Jessie's death has compounded the pain. Attorneys from major law firms declined to take her case because of California's 45-year-old Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). The law, an anachronism that protects doctors and insurance companies while wounding patients and their survivors, limits "pain and suffering" damages to $250,000 - a figure that was set in 1975 and would be $1.2 million today if adjusted for inflation.
"Getting a lawyer was horrible," says Michelle. She contacted several top San Francisco area law firms and they told her "you have an excellent case, but this would be a bad business decision" because of the 1975 cap.
Like most Californians, the Geyers had never heard of the $250,000 cap on compensation. It's one of California's "best kept secrets," says Michelle.
But now they are dead set on amending or eliminating it.
"We're looking for accountability," says Mark.
Jessie's illness began two days before Halloween, on October 29. She awoke with a high fever and intense leg pain. They took her to her pediatrician at Diablo Valley Pediatrics, who said it looked like a bacterial infection and told the Geyers to take Jessie to John Muir Medical Center.
The doctor there took an x-ray, which he said showed nothing unusual, and decided she probably had a flu-related virus. He gave her a non-prescription pain reliever and sent them home.
A series of failed communications ensued between the two physicians, according to Mark Geyer. "It's like a popup between short and center; it falls in."
Because of that, Jessie never had a culture taken. And no antibiotics were prescribed.
"Both doctors blew it," says Mark.
Meanwhile, Jessie sat at home, getting worse, while her parents believed she was on the road to recovery. "That's what haunts me," says Michelle. "She was home two days, and she was dying."
On Halloween night the leg swelled and the fever broke. Jessie got clammy. She weakened quickly, and went into shock. Mark rushed her to the Sutter Delta Medical Center emergency room, then went back to get Michelle, at the doctor's suggestion.
"We told her to fight, and that we loved her," says Mark. "She said, 'I love you.' She closed her eyes and the monitor went flat."
Jessie's stunned parents -- Michelle went into hysterics while Mark became all but catatonic -- didn't know what had taken their daughter's life. They were not to find out for months, when a forensic pathologist working for the Centers for Disease Control discovered that she had died from a group A streptococcal infection that had spread throughout her body.
The death could have been prevented with proper medical attention.
When they learned that, the Geyers embarked on their search for an attorney. They finally found one, after being rebuffed by multiple lawyers who would not touch it. The cap on damages does not work for children, stay-at-home Moms, the retired, and others who don't have an income.
The suit has been filed in Contra Costa County and awaits depositions. The Geyers got where they are by being persistent. The county coroner's office, for example, wanted to list Jessie's death as having an "undetermined cause." The Geyers wouldn't settle for that. They believe "there are a lot of other people like us…who just gave up."
The Geyers want two things, in addition to prevailing in the malpractice suit. They want the 1975 cap amended to reflectthe 45 years of inflation; and they want it to cover people who don't have incomes, like children and the elderly.
"In the world of 2004," the Geyers write on their website, dedicated to 'Jessie's Law,' "$250,000 is often not sufficient to bring the case to trial, considering the expense of the attorney, the many depositions, the research and the high cost of expert testimony.
"This is particularly unfair to children...because they are not eligible for 'actual damages' since they are not considered wage earners. The result is that very few malpractice cases where children are the victims and parents consumed with the greatest loss of all never make it to court."
"The system is broken," say Michelle Geyer. "We have a really bad combination. The health care system combined with this MICRA law is horrific."