I have tried not to comment on the untimely death of comedienne Joan Rivers last week due to the fact that the investigation into her demise at the Yorkville Endoscopy center in Manhattan is still ongoing. However, more details are starting to leak out about that fateful day and the story is starting to get more disturbing.
Ms. Rivers was scheduled to have a procedure performed at the center that day by her personal gastroenterologist, Dr. Lawrence B. Cohen, to evaluate a worsening hoarseness in her famously raspy voice. Ms. Rivers appeared to be in good health and spirits at the time, even performing the night before at a club.
Now it's not uncommon for GI docs to evaluate hoarseness. What does the GI tract have to do with poor phonation? Severe gastric reflux can produce acid that comes up the esophagus and potentially damage the cords. Therefore it's not unheard of for a GI physician to perform an endoscopy to look for evidence of reflux that might lead to vocal cord damage.
Up to this point I have no problems with the story. Then the whole episode starts to go awry. At first the news was that Ms. Rivers went into respiratory and cardiac arrest during the procedure. The first thing I thought of was laryngospasm, which is not uncommon during upper endoscopies performed with only conscious sedation or monitored anesthesia. An anesthesiologist present would have known precisely how to reverse the laryngospasm as that has been drilled into us since day one of residency training. However, it would have been unusual for Dr. Cohen to have used an anesthesiologist to give sedation to Ms. Rivers since he is well known in academic circles for looking with disdain at using anesthesiologists at all for endoscopies. He's one of those GI docs who feels he can simultaneously perform his duties of a gastroenterologist and an anesthesiologist without jeopardizing patient safety. So it's highly likely that Dr. Cohen was the one directing the nurses in the room to give IV sedation for the procedure, despite the claims of Yorkville spokeswoman Marcia Horowitz, who states that an anesthesiologist is always at a patient's bedside throughout the procedure and "immediately assumes control of the airway and assists with a patient's ventilation" if the patient is in jeopardy.
Ms. Horowitz says the center has three or four anesthesiologists working any given time to help with airway management. Yet they also say that succinylcholine is not available at the facility. Whaaa? I don't know of ANY anesthesiologist who will work anywhere without having access to at least one vial of succinylcholine at a moment's notice. It is precisely for emergencies like a laryngospasm that a rapidly acting muscle relaxant is most essential. So to claim that they have multiple anesthesiologists standing by with all the latest resuscitation equipment ready yet have no sux around doesn't make any sense at all.
Now comes the bombshell that Ms. Rivers had her vocal cords biopsied by an ENT surgeon who isn't even authorized to do procedures at Yorkville Endoscopy. In fact the surgeon was assumed by the center's staff to be a makeup artist for Ms. Rivers. Curiously, without knowing the identity of this person, they let her into the procedure room with her little black bag of equipment. If that's not the worst Joint Commission violation in the first degree, I don't know what is. First of all, did Ms. Rivers even know this surgeon or that she would be coming in during her EGD to possibly perform a vocal cord biopsy? Was the surgeon's name on the consent? Was there even a consent for vocal cord biopsy since the staff didn't even know the surgeon? Are the staff at Yorkville Endoscopy so intimidated by the GI doctors that they are afraid to raise questions about irregularities in the procedures?
The identity of this ENT hasn't been revealed, yet she could possibly be the worst ENT surgeon in the world. An ENT surgeon has looked at thousands of vocal cords during a lifetime of practice, including many airways horribly deformed by cancer. Therefore if Ms. Rivers went into laryngospasm, presumably the ENT would have just as much or more experience than the anesthesiologists in intubating her to reverse her hypoxia. One may assume that anesthesiologists have more experience with intubating the trachea, but many anesthesiologists who work at these outpatient ambulatory centers probably haven't intubated a patient in years. Even if the ENT had difficulty intubating Ms. Rivers, which they eventually did, the surgeon would have been the perfect person to perform an emergency tracheotomy to save her life.
So this raises the question of how Ms. Rivers was being monitored during her endoscopy. Did she have all the basic monitoring equipment in place according to ASA guidelines, including pulse oximetry? Even if she went into laryngospasm, there is usually at least a few seconds to get the endotracheal tube in place to prevent hypoxia leading to cardiac arrest and brain damage. The surgeon would have been in precisely the right location to quickly insert the tube. Yet it sounded like they didn't realize the patient was desaturating quickly until it was too late.
So as you can see, a lot of this story doesn't make sense yet. The investigation into what happened in that procedure room will take months to complete and may never be completely revealed to the public. In the meantime, Dr. Cohen has lost his job as the medical director and procedurist at Yorkville Endoscopy. And I'm once again having to explain to my patients in preop why they won't suffer the same fate as poor Joan Rivers.