Doctor in Distress: Renuka Reddy Bankulla is Caught Up in Controversy Surrounding Joan Rivers’s Death



An Indian-American anesthesiologist was among the 3 physicians involved in procedures being investigated in the Sept. 4 death of comedian Joan Rivers. A federal government report poking holes in the treatment Rivers’ received at a high-end Manhattan clinic could result in a multimillion dollar lawsuit expected to be filed by her daughter Melissa Rivers against the Indian-American physician and her two colleagues.

Dr. Renuka Reddy Bankulla, 47, a 1991 graduate of NTR University of Health Sciences, Vijayawada Gandhi Medical College, was the anesthesiologist whose name had hitherto not been revealed in the incident involving the death of Rivers after she was admitted to Yorkville Endoscopy Aug. 28, the New York Post reported Jan. 4. The paper accosted Bankulla outside her home in Scarsdale, N.Y., but she refused to speak and left hurriedly in her car, the Post said.

Now it seems Bankulla is being tried in the press a source who did not wish to be named told Desi Talk.

Routine Procedure
The renowned comic died at Mt. Sinai hospital where she was moved from the clinic after going into ‘hypoxic arrest,’ her brain deprived of oxygen during what was supposed to be a routine procedure. The technical description of the death according to the statement sent to Desi Talk by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York says, “The cause of Ms. Rivers’ death is anoxic encephalopathy due to hypoxic arrest during laryngoscopy and upper gastrointestinal endoscopy with propofol sedation for evaluation of voice changes and gastroesophageal reflux disease.” It goes on to say that “The manner of death is therapeutic complication. The classification of a death as a therapeutic complication means that the death resulted from a predictable complication of medical therapy.” The comedian reportedly went into the clinic to check why her voice was getting hoarse.

Multimillion Lawsuit
While the medical examiner may have considered it a “predictable” complication, Rivers’ family does not. Bankulla, who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., and has been practicing for 23 years, could be at the receiving end of a massive lawsuit. Melissa Rivers’ lawyers at Gair, Gair, Conason, Steigman, Mackauf, Bloom & Rubinowitz refused to comment on whether they were filing a lawsuit according to the Post. But the firm confirmed in October that it was looking into the matter.  “In order to fully determine all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Joan Rivers, we confirm that our firm has been engaged by Melissa Rivers and her family,” it said in a statement reported by Ben Rubinowitz and Jeffrey Bloom are representing the Rivers family.

Some observers who know details of the incidednt, said it was unfortunate that media is quoting “all these experts who know nothing about the matter,” adding that “It’s already something like being tried in the press.”

Soon after Rivers’ procedure Bankulla and the other two physicians were let go by the posh East 93rd clinic. Lawrence Cohen, former Yorkville Endoscopy medical director, and Gwen Korovin, Rivers’ ear, nose and throat specialist whose practice focused on celebrities were identified early on in the tragedy. But Bankulla’s name had not made the news till the Post reported it. In a Nov. 10 statement the clinic said it was cooperating fully in the Aug. 28 incident and addressing any deficiencies pointed out in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report with a plan of correction. “In addition, the physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville,” the clinic said.

Critical Report
The 22-page report from CMS on Rivers’ death was critical of the clinic. “Based on the review of medical records, documents, policies and procedures and interviews, it was determined that the facility failed to ensure that patient care services are provided in a manner that protects the health and safety of all patients.” The American Society of Anesthesiologists in a Nov. 14 statement following the CMS report, said more than 100 million operations and procedures are performed on Americans every year involving the administration of anesthesia. “While our goal is to reduce the risk of surgery and anesthesia to zero, we are not there yet,” it conceded.

Dreaded Propofol
Where Bankulla’s role in the Rivers death case becomes notable is the sedation the comedian was put under with the drug propofol, the same drug that late rock-star Michael Jackson’s physician was accused of administering wrongfully. Despite the fact that two other physicians were involved in treating Rivers, Bankulla’s role appears to be getting more bad press than the others.

NBCnewyork, quoting a plastic surgeon, said hypoxia is a potential side effect of the drug. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services report, doctors did not record Rivers’ body weight before administering propofol, and they “failed to identify deteriorating vital signs and provide timely intervention.” The CMS also says it was not clear when CPR was first administered.

The Hollywood Reporter which obtained a copy of the CMS report said it included among the litany of complaints, “mistakes in administering the anesthesia Propofol,” something that was directly under Bankulla’s control. In its Jan. 5 report, the Post said Bankulla had not cooperated with the CMS but had told investigators that she had administered the right amount of propofol, 120 miligrams. However, in recording it, she had inadvertently punched the button twice thus showing it as 300 miligrams.

“Our client, Melissa Rivers, is terribly disappointed to learn of the multiple failings on the part of medical personnel and the clinic as evidenced by the CMS report,”NBCNewyork quoted attorneys Bloom and Rubinowitz saying in a statement in November. “As any of us would be, Ms. Rivers is outraged by the misconduct and mismanagement now shown to have occurred before, during and after the procedure. Moving forward, Ms. Rivers will direct her efforts towards ensuring that what happened to her mother will not occur again with any other patient.”
Bankulla’s lawyer Bruce Brady did not call back by press time.

Bankulla’s lawyer Bruce Brady told Desi Talk neither his client nor he were going to make any comment on the Joan Rivers matter.