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Column: Times' investigative team exposes big problems at the Heart Institute inside Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

The mission of the Tampa Bay Times' investigative team is to hold the powerful accountable. Our reporters ferret out wrongdoing, injustice, abuse and incompetence.

In doing so, our journalism gives voice to the voiceless.

That, perhaps, has never been more evident than on the home page of our website today.

Investigative reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi found that babies have died at an alarming rate at the Heart Institute inside Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, one of the region's most venerable institutions.

At least eight children last year alone.

Read the investigation

Johns Hopkins took control of the hospital seven years ago with a goal to make it one of the best in the nation. But so much has gone wrong at the Heart Institute in the past few years. Through medical data, McGrory and Bedi determined that no Florida hospital had a worse record for children's heart surgeries last year. The problems, however, began to surface in 2015.

McGrory and Bedi found cases where sutures inexplicably burst and patches covering holes in little hearts had failed. On more than one occasion, surgeons lost track of needles left behind in the hearts of young children. Infections mounted. And surgeons and hospital officials didn't always own up to their mistakes.

"The most striking revelation, I think, was that the hospital knew about the problems for more than a year before they stopped one of the surgeons from operating at the hospital," McGrory said.

This story started as a tip that arrived in McGrory's email inbox.

"She reported relentlessly for months," said Adam Playford, our deputy editor for investigations. "And for a long time we thought we'd never get it nailed down. But what she was hearing from her sources seemed so important, it felt like we had no choice but to keep trying."

It took a year.

McGrory has an uncanny ability to persuade sources to share their stories. If she's not knocking on doors in the field, she's at her desk — chipping away. Always chipping away.

Bedi knocked on doors, too. He's an expert at identifying big themes in numbers. He spent months penetrating 10 years of statewide hospital admissions data. Millions of rows of it.

"Most of that time was spent ensuring our methods were as fair and accurate as possible," Bedi said.

Together, they formed an incomparable team. They had to learn everything they could about congenital heart defects and the surgical procedures to repair them.

"One of the reasons I'm proud to work at the Times," Playford noted, "is that we employ superbly talented people to get to the bottom of important issues."

The reporters also had to earn the trust of families still coping with unfathomable loss.

Without those families, it may have been difficult to understand the true consequences of what McGrory was hearing from her medical sources or what Bedi was finding in the data.

Parents bravely shared stories about surgical procedures gone bad. Moms like Sandra Vazquez, Rosana Escamilla and Ma Candelaria Tellez. Dads like Glen McGowan. Tragedy had turned their families upside down.

We hope that telling their stories shines a wide spotlight on an important local institution in need of closer scrutiny.

Mark Katches is the executive editor. Contact him at mkatches@tampabay.com or at 727-893-8441. Follow @markkatches.

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