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Our client, a healthy Mt. Lebanon man in his 30’s was having flu and cold like symptoms. After a number of days, he was left with a sore throat that had increasing become so painful and severe that he could not eat or drink. More ominously, he felt that his throat was closing up and making it difficult for him to breath. His condition was so concerning to him and his wife, that 911 was called, paramedics came to their home, and he asked to be taken to a hospital. In the emergency department of a hospital south of Pittsburgh, our client was never seen by a doctor. Instead he was seen by a physician’s assistant who diagnosed him with pharyngitis, the medical term for a common sore throat infection. Our client was told he had nothing serious and sent home.
While most sore throats are not life threatening and are generally self resolving, it is imperative that medical providers conduct a complete assessment and examination to rule out, make sure, that patients do not have one of a handful of less common, but more serious, throat infections. For our client, his epiglottis, the small flap of tissue that covers the top of the trachea or windpipe so that food or liquid goes down the esophagus, had become infected. Epiglottitis is a medical emergency because when the epiglottis becomes infected, it becomes inflamed and can swell, effectively sealing off one’s trachea and preventing one from breathing. In other words, a person can asphyxiate. Fortunately, epiglottitis is easy to diagnose and treat. Any time a patient with a sore throat appears to be having or complains of having trouble breathing, a simple x-ray of the neck should be taken which will reveal if the epiglottis has become infected and swollen. Immediate IV antibiotics administered before the epiglottis completely obstructs will prevent such a catastrophic result. Patients whose epiglottitis is promptly diagnosed and treated will have a full and complete recovery in a matter of days.
Tragically, when our client’s epiglottitis was not diagnosed, he returned home and by the next morning, his epiglottis completely obstructed, preventing him for breathing. By the time he was rushed back to a hospital, he had been without oxygen for such an extended period of time that he suffered irreversible brain damage and died. We filed a wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in a settlement benefiting the gentleman’s wife and two children. As an example of how medical malpractice lawsuits can help correct a wrong, part of the settlement proceeds were used to set up trust accounts for his two children so that their future educations could be paid for.