Death of 'Poltergeist' star blamed on unusual bowel defect
THE FREDERICK POST. THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 1988
LOS ANGELES (AP) - The bowel defect blamed for the death of 12-year old "Poltergeist" actress Heather O'Rourke usually is obvious at birth, and it is very rare for it to kill an older child who lacked prior symptoms, experts said Wednesday.
The reported circumstances of Heather's death on Monday were so unusual that some doctors unconnected with the case speculated the diagnosis might be wrong. Others said the circumstances were possible but extremely unusual.
A private funeral is planned Friday at Westwood Village Mortuary in Los Angeles for the blond youngster, whose character encountered ghosts and warned '-They're heeeere!" in "Poltergeist" and "They're baaaack!" in the sequel. Filming was completed on a third "Poltergeist" movie last June.
According to Terry Merryman, spokeswoman for Children's Hospital of San Diego, Heather died of septic shock due to congenital stenosis of the intestine, or bowel. That means she died of shock caused by infection in the blood, which in turn was caused by a birth defect that made a section of her intestine abnormally narrow.
Such narrowing typically reduces bowel diameter to one-eighth inch instead of the normal half inch. It impedes movement of food and fluid through the bowel, and usually is apparent at birth because it causes severe abdominal pain, vomiting and nausea, said Dr. Daniel Hollander, head of gastroenterology at University of California, Irvine, Medical Center.
"I would have expected a lot of (digestive) difficulties throughout her life and not just to have developed a problem all of a sudden," he said.
But Mike Meyer, the actress' manager and lawyer, said Heather didn't suffer chronic digestive problems, and the bowel narrowing wasn't discovered until she underwent surgery and died on the operating table after suffering cardiac arrest en route to the hospital.
"So my own thought would be to question the diagnosis," Dr. Hollander said, speculating that Heather's bowel narrowing might not have been congenital but could have developed suddenly due to inflammation.
However, congenital bowel narrowing could cause sudden death after years without symptoms if infection caused the bowel to rupture or become perforated, said Dr. Frank Sinatra, head of gastroenterology at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.
Mr. Meyer said a section of Heather's intestine burst after ballooning to 4 inches in diameter. She contracted an intestinal parasite last winter, probably from well water at her home in Big Bear, and her doctors assume the parasite inflamed the intestine.
Moderate bowel narrowing at birth might not cause symptoms, said Dr. Paul Hyman, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Harbor-University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center.