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The Rare Infection That Almost Killed Sarah Silverman — and Why You Should Care

A rare infection put comedian Sarah Silverman into intensive care for five days, but she said she has recovered and feels “insanely lucky to be alive.”

Silverman posted on Facebook yesterday detailing how she ended up hospitalized last week in the ICU at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“Don’t even know why I went to the doctor, it was just a sore throat,” Silverman wrote. “But I had a freak case of epiglottitis.”

Epiglottitis is an infection of the small flap of tissue that protects the airway. It’s not commonly seen by doctors and is easy enough to miss, though most emergency room doctors know to look for it.

“There have been lethal incidents where doctors miss the diagnosis,” said Dr. Marvin Fried, chairman of otorhinolaryngology at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “The difficulty with this is that patients complain of difficulty speaking, breathing, pain on swallowing, but if you look at the back of the throat it looks fine because the issue is down farther.”

Epiglottitis usually affects small children where it is extremely life-threatening, he said.

In her post, Silverman thanked her doctors, saying “I owe my life to Dr. Shawn Nasseri, Dr. Robert Naruse, Dr. Rob Huizenga, every nurse, and every technician and orderly at Cedars who’s [sic] punch-the-clock jobs happen to save human lives on the regular.”

A Beverly Hills ear-nose-and-throat doctor, Nasseri treats many celebrities and has consulted for a variety of television shows, including the NBC show “The Voice.”

“It isn’t due to the normal organisms that produce infections like strep,” said Fried, who told the Forward he mentored Nasseri while the celebrity physician was a medical student at Harvard University.

While most cases of epiglottitis are bacterial, it can be viral, Fried said. There are two types of epiglottitis: One that progresses slowly over a few days and another that is far more rapid, which appears to have been the case with Silverman, he said.

Silverman said she was intubated and on a respirator during her recovery, and that she was restrained in order to prevent her from pulling out her breathing tube.

The standard treatment for epiglottitis is similar to other types of bacterial infections: antibiotics. However, the most immediate concern is gaining control of the airway by intubating — or inserting a breathing tube into — the patient, Fried said. Once the patient’s breathing is controlled, doctors can do the necessary tests and prescribe needed antibiotics and steroids.

Though the infection is rare, Fried said it is important to be aware of it.

“If patients have difficulty with these symptoms and someone says you’ll be okay, it isn’t necessarily true,” he said. “Good for her that she had gone to the doctor.”

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