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Tag: Yorkville Endoscopy

The Anesthesiologist’s Story: New Details Emerge In the Joan Rivers Case

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New York Post reporter Susan Edelman revealed on January 4 the name of the unfortunate anesthesiologist allegedly present on August 28 at Yorkville Endoscopy, during the throat procedure that led to the death of comedian Joan Rivers. She is reported to be Renuka Reddy Bankulla, MD, 47, a board-certified anesthesiologist from New Rochelle, NY.

Having her name made public will be a nightmare for Dr. Bankulla, as investigators will certainly target her role in Ms. Rivers’ sedation and the management — or mismanagement — of her resuscitation.

When the news of Ms. Rivers’ cardiac arrest and transfer to Mt. Sinai Hospital became public, many of us guessed that there might have been no qualified anesthesia practitioner — either anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist — present during the case. The gastroenterologist and then medical director of the clinic, Dr. Lawrence Cohen, argued famously that the sedative propofol, which Ms. Rivers received, could be safely given by a registered nurse under his supervision, and that no anesthesiologist is necessary.

However, with the publication of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) report of September 5, it became clear that an anesthesiologist was definitely present. The anesthesiologist was identified only as “Staff #2″ in the report. She was interviewed by the CMS surveyors four days after the event, but said she was “advised by her legal representative not to discuss the case.”

Key pieces of information about what happened still haven’t been made public. Nonetheless, the surveyors gathered enough information to reach this conclusion:  “The physicians in charge of the care of the patient failed to identify deteriorating vital signs and provide timely intervention during the procedure.”

By any standard of care, the anesthesiologist clearly would be one of the physicians in charge.

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What Happened at Yorkville Endoscopy?

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The ear, nose and throat specialist who treated comedian Joan Rivers on August 28 has been identified as Dr. Gwen Korovin, a prominent New York physician who is known as a voice doctor to many entertainers and Broadway stars including Hugh Jackman and Julie Andrews.

With a physician who is an expert in airway anatomy at her side, and all the technologic advantages of a modern clinic in Manhattan’s upper east side, the 81-year-old Ms. Rivers must have anticipated an uneventful procedure. Instead, she stopped breathing and suffered cardiac arrest. The question remains:  What went wrong?

Credentials questioned

Several sources have reported that Dr. Korovin had not completed usual credentialing procedures at Yorkville Endoscopy, and did not have privileges to do anything but observe on the day Ms. Rivers was treated.

In fairness, the credentialing process at a hospital or ambulatory surgery center (ASC) simply reviews documentation that the physician is qualified to perform procedures, and grants the physician privileges to practice there. Physicians choose where they want to work, and don’t necessarily maintain privileges at more than one hospital or ASC.  A lack of privileges doesn’t imply a lack of experience or training; it simply means that the physician hasn’t gone through credentialing steps at that facility.

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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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What Killed Joan Rivers? Piecing Together a Medical Mystery

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There are minor operations and procedures, but there are no minor anesthetics.  This could turn out to be the one lesson learned from the ongoing investigation into the death of comedian Joan Rivers.

Ms. Rivers’ funeral was held yesterday, September 7.  Like so many of her fans, I appreciated her quick wit as she entertained us for decades, poking fun at herself and skewering the fashion choices of the rich and famous.  She earned her success with hard work and keen intelligence–she was, after all, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College.  Ms. Rivers was still going strong at 81 when she walked into an outpatient center for what should have been a quick procedure.

So when she suffered cardiac arrest on August 28, and died a week later, we all wondered what happened.  I have no access to any inside information, and the only people who know are those who were present at the time.

But the facts as they’ve been reported in the press don’t fully make sense, and they raise a number of questions.

What procedure was done?

Early reports stated that Ms. Rivers underwent a procedure involving her vocal cords.  A close friend, Jay Redack, told reporters at the NY Post, “Her throat was bothering her for a long time. Her voice was getting more raspy, if that was possible.”  In a televised interview, Redack told CNN that Ms. Rivers was scheduled to undergo a procedure “on either her vocal cords or her throat.”

However, the Manhattan clinic where Ms. Rivers was treated, Yorkville Endoscopy, offers only procedures to diagnose problems of the digestive tract.  All the physicians listed on the staff are specialists in gastroenterology.  Any procedure on the vocal cords typically would be done by an otolaryngologist, who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose, and throat.

So it may be that acid reflux was considered as a possible cause of Ms. Rivers’ increasingly raspy voice, and she may have been scheduled for endoscopy at the Yorkville clinic to examine the lining of her esophagus and stomach.  Endoscopy could reveal signs of inflammation and support a diagnosis of acid reflux.

Upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy involves insertion of a large scope through the patient’s mouth into the esophagus, and passage of the scope into the stomach and the beginning of the small intestine.  It’s a simple procedure, but uncomfortable enough that most patients are given sedation or, less commonly, general anesthesia.

Was sedation given?

Three types of medication are commonly used for sedation during endoscopy:

1.  Midazolam, diazepam (Valium), or other medications in the benzodiazepine family are often used to help patients relax before the start of the procedure and to produce amnesia.

2.  Narcotics such as Demerol and morphine are often used to provide pain relief and make the procedure less uncomfortable.

3.  Propofol, a potent sedative and hypnotic medication, may be used to induce sleep and prevent awareness.  Many people first heard of propofol as the medication associated with the death of singer Michael Jackson in 2009.

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