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Anesthesiologist’s Review of the Facts in the Joan Rivers Case

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Since the death of comedian and talk-show host Joan Rivers, more information has surfaced about the events on the morning of August 28 at Yorkville Endoscopy. But key questions remain unanswered.

News accounts agree that Ms. Rivers sought medical advice because her famous voice was becoming increasingly raspy. This could be caused by a polyp or tumor on the vocal cords, or by acid reflux irritating the throat, among other possible causes.

So Ms. Rivers underwent an endoscopy by Dr. Lawrence B. Cohen, a prominent gastroenterologist, to evaluate her esophagus and stomach for signs of acid reflux. At the same time, a specialist in diseases of the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) reportedly examined her vocal cords (also known as vocal folds).

We don’t know exactly how much or what type of sedation Ms. Rivers’ may have received, though several news sources have reported that she was given propofol, the sedative associated with the death of Michael Jackson. No physician who specializes in anesthesiology has been identified on the team taking care of Ms. Rivers, and we don’t know who was in charge of giving her propofol.

It seems clear that at some point during Ms. Rivers’ endoscopy and vocal cord examination, there was a critical lack of oxygen in her bloodstream.

Was laryngospasm the cause?

Giving sedation for upper endoscopy is tricky, as any anesthesia practitioner will tell you. A large black endoscope takes up space in the mouth and may obstruct breathing. Any sedative will tend to blunt the patient’s normal drive to breathe. But most patients breathe well enough during the procedure, and go home with no complaints other than a mild sore throat.

News reports have speculated that the root cause of Ms. Rivers’ rapid deterioration during the procedure could have been laryngospasm. This term means literally that the larynx, or voice box, goes into spasm, and the vocal cords snap completely shut. No air can enter, and of course the oxygen in the bloodstream is rapidly used up.

The most common situation that leads to laryngospasm is irritation of the vocal cords. Everyone knows that when a drop of liquid or a crumb of food goes down the wrong way, it’s highly irritating and provokes a fit of coughing. When the vocal cords are stimulated or even lightly touched, their natural protective response is to close up.

Every anesthesiologist is taught how to manage laryngospasm, because it can be a life-threatening emergency leading to brain damage or death if the patient is deprived of oxygen for too long. Sometimes the vocal cords relax and open up on their own, but often they don’t.

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