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No one could figure out the cause of her cough. Then a nurse practitioner had an idea

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. Today's story comes from Julie Silverman. In 2018, Silverman developed a bad cough. She went to multiple doctors. No one could figure out what was causing it. As the mystery continued, Silverman went to her allergist's office for weekly allergy shots.

JULIE SILVERMAN: And that is where I met Allison. She started as a nurse practitioner there. And she did a couple of evaluations of me. And she was really kind of perplexed by this cough. And, you know, she was often asking me how I was doing. And I had at this point gotten kind of dismissive about it because I had been dismissed by so many doctors, says there's nothing wrong. It's just you're not responding to our treatments. We'll try something else and et cetera, et cetera.

So as more time goes by, I was in there one day. And Allison was noting that I sounded much worse - a very hoarse voice, very breathless, wheezing along with my coughing. And she was just adamant something was wrong with me. And so she went and got one of the physicians and said, you need to do a scope and look at her trachea. I just know something is wrong.

So a physician came in. He agreed my voice sounded very odd. And he did a scope, took a bunch of pictures and pulls it out. And I could just tell by their faces, you know, something was not right. And he told me I have something called idiopathic subglottic stenosis. Idiopathic, meaning they don't know where it came from. Subglottic is in the top of my trachea, right below my vocal cords. And stenosis, of course, is a narrowing of the airway or the passageway.

So I had scar tissue occluding my trachea. It was about 75% blocked with scar tissue. So I was literally breathing through a straw. This is a very rare condition. It only happens to about 1 in 400,000 people. So this condition is, of course, very serious and, you know, fatal if not treated because your airway completely closes and, you know, you're lucky if you can get to an emergency room where they can figure out what's happening.

So it's a complex condition. But had Allison not picked up on the fact that she was sure something else was wrong and gotten this physician to look in my throat, I don't know what would have happened. I think I would have continued to be dismissed. I was kind of dismissing it at that time too, feeling like, well, this is just what I have. It's just the way I sound. It's just the way I breathe. And I feel like, had she not gotten to me when she did, I may not be here now telling this story. It was her persistence and diligence and her listening to me and taking me seriously that got my diagnosis in a timely enough fashion to do something about it. So for these reasons, Allison is my unsung hero.

KELLY: Julie Silverman of Flagstaff, Ariz. And you can find more stories like this on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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