Lake County Couple Suing Over Son’s Death at UCSF Hospital

A Lake County couple whose infant son was recovering from a rare, life-threatening condition only to be killed by a bacteria that lurks in water pipes is suing the hospital where the child underwent a bone marrow transplant.

“We need to let others know. They need to fix it so it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said Kellie Joseph, a Lake County Sheriff’s detective and mother of Ryland Joseph, who died at the UC San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital May 16 at the age of 7 months. She and husband Rodd Joseph, a Clearlake Police sergeant, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Oct. 23 against the University of California regents.

The grieving couple contends Ryland was infected with Legionnaires’ disease while recovering from a successful bone marrow transplant at Benioff Children’s Hospital. He’d been in the hospital for more than three weeks when he contracted a fatal case of pneumonia that later was confirmed to be Legionnaires’ disease.

The time between exposure to the bacteria and symptoms is two- to 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s just impossible he could have caught it anywhere else,” said Steve Heisler, a personal injury attorney based in Baltimore. He’s one of two lawyers representing the Josephs.

Hospital officials said they cannot comment on the lawsuit but confirmed an ongoing investigation into the death.

“At this point, there is not a clear explanation for the child’s infection,” the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Josh Adler, said in a written response to the Press Democrat’s inquiries.

The California Department of Public Health on Tuesday confirmed it also has conducted an investigation into the death and said its findings should be available “soon.”

The lawsuit alleges hospital officials had “actual knowledge” that the building’s water system was contaminated with Legionella bacteria.

At least two other children have died of the disease at the hospital, one in 1992 and one in 1998, according to the lawsuit.

Adler’s statement said only that there have been no Legionella infections at UCSF in the past two years. Hospital officials did not provide information about cases prior to that and state health officials said they do not keep track of infections by facility.

Adler also said that tests conducted following the child’s death found no Legionella bacteria in the water supply. Legionella bacteria are found in all man-made water systems, he said. Most municipal water companies treat the water with monochloramine to kill the bacteria, he said. The hospital tests monochloramine levels in water at its entry point to the UCSF campus and heats water to 140 degrees Fahrenheit to mitigate exposure to the bacteria, Adler said.

The hospital did not respond to a question asking whether the bacteria was found in any of its pipes, rather than the water.

Legionella bacteria is spread when contaminated water is aerosolized, then inhaled, according to the CDC. It is not spread from person to person.

The 1976 outbreak at a Philadelphia Legionnaires’ convention that gave the disease its name was spread through an air conditioning system. Hot tubs, hot water tanks, decorative fountains and water misters also are believed to have been responsible for outbreaks, according to the CDC.

An estimated 8,000 to 18,000 people in the United States are hospitalized with the disease each year, according to the CDC.

Many people who are exposed do not become ill, but patients with compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible.

Ryland Joseph had Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare genetic immunodeficiency disorder that required that he have a bone marrow transplant.

Before he could receive the transplant from his sister, Brooklynn, 2, the boy had to undergo chemotherapy, further weakening his immune system. Anyone going into the room was required to follow strict procedures to prevent exposing him to disease, his parents said.

Ryland’s new marrow cells were growing and the procedure was deemed a success just days before he took a turn for the worse, Kellie Joseph said.

“Everything just went downhill from there,” she said between sobs.

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