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

Former congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson, who died on Dec. 31, 2023, introduces Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke at a town hall over the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde and gun reform in Dallas on June 1, 2022. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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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.

"She had no reason not to be here," Kirk Johnson, the congresswoman's son, told reporters at a Thursday afternoon news conference. "If she had gotten the proper care, she would be here today."

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 about an hour at the rehab center while she repeatedly asked for help that didn’t come, according to Les Weisbrod, attorney 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 from a spinal infection while in hospice care at her home on New Year’s Eve.

The last time Kirk Johnson spoke with his mother was Christmas Day, he said. She knew she was about to die, he told reporters.

"She thought that she would live three weeks," he said, his voice breaking. "But she didn't."

Baylor Scott & White officials said Thursday they couldn't comment in detail on the allegations.

"Congresswoman Johnson was a longtime friend and champion in the communities we serve—she is an inspiration to all. We are committed to working directly with the Congresswoman’s family members and their counsel," Matt Olivolo, a spokesman for Baylor Scott & White Health, said in an emailed statement. "Out of respect for patient privacy, we must limit our comments."

Weisbrod said he had been in touch with attorneys for the hospital system and rehab center, and that he is "hopeful that it will be worked out." Texas law limits medical malpractice lawsuit awards to $250,000. Punitive damages can go much higher, but are subject to restrictions that include a favorable unanimous jury decision.

"They have assured me that they want to work toward a resolution," he said. "And I've dealt with these people over the years a lot, on a lot of cases. I think they're reputable people. They've expressed sympathy for what occurred."

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.

On Sept. 7, Johnson went to an orthopedic surgeon for a complicated back surgery on the lumbar region of her lower spine to repair damage done by scoliosis and other issues so that she would be able to continue walking, Weisbrod told reporters on Thursday. The surgeon, Dr. Andrew Park, installed hardware into several areas of her lower spine to stabilize it, he said.

The surgery went well, and Johnson was expected to have a recovery period of a couple of weeks, said Weisbrod, who also had back surgery by Park earlier in the year. Johnson was already walking a few days after the surgery, he said. Her surgeon referred her to the Baylor Scott & White rehab center where staff was supposed to take care of her wound and help her regain her strength before going home, he said.

But on Sept. 21, her son, Kirk Johnson, was on his way to the center for a routine meeting about her care when his mother called him saying she needed her sheets changed and that nobody was responding to her calls for help for at least 15 minutes, the son said. When he got there 15 minutes later, still nobody was there and his mother, he said, was 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 was screaming out in pain, asking for help," Kirk Johnson told reporters.

He found an administrator and his mother was cleaned up and assigned a different caretaker. The family estimates that she was unattended in her own feces and urine for at least an hour.

“[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.’”

At the time, Weisbrod said, the family was told that the nurses scheduled to monitor the station for calls that day were in a training session. In a voice mail from a case manager a few days later — a recording of which was played for reporters on Thursday — the son was told the technician who was assigned to the congresswoman’s care that day was checking on another patient when Johnson needed help.

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, according to Weisbrod.

Medical records released to reporters indicate Johnson had intense pain and a fever, as well as other signs of infection in the wound. Lab results confirmed that it was an infection and found bacteria that was directly related to the exposure to the feces.

Doctors operated again on Sept. 25, Weisbrod said. Treating the infection required not only cutting away the infected parts of the wound, but also removing all the hardware from the previous surgery to make sure it wasn't infected, and then putting it back into the spine again, he said. She began taking antibiotics intravenously, the attorney said, and was on them until the day she died. After that second surgery, Johnson was moved to a skilled nursing facility to recover from the procedure but was moved home in mid-December for hospice care.

She died shortly after.

But before her death, the congresswoman pressed her attorney to “pursue this case for her weeks before she passed,” Weisbrod said.

"She knew what happened to her, we discussed it, and she asked me to pursue a case for her," he said. "And of course I thought it was going to be a case for the pain that she went through, and the additional procedure she went through and the medical bills, and that she was going to recover. It’s very distressing for me that she succumbed to this."

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