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Doctors Search for Clues to Similar Deaths of Six Family Members

November 24, 1991

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ Doctors are searching for answers to a mysterious heart ailment that killed six members of a family when they were young and appeared to be in the best of health.

″It’s very frustrating,″ said L. Bing Liem, associate director of the cardiac arrhythmia unit at Stanford University Hospital. ″There’s no test or findings we can use to suspect which family members would be at risk.″

The first death was in 1960, when Francisco Martinez Santos, a 34-year-old father of seven, died of a heart attack in his Milpitas home four days after having a physical exam that found him to be in excellent health.

In 1981, his 27-year-old daughter, Doris, died in her sleep. Three years later, a son, Ronnie, 24, collapsed and died while playing softball. Less than a year after that another son, Franklin, collapsed and died while watching television. He was 33.

A third son, 30-year-old Ralph, died while lying on a sofa.

The latest death was Nov. 15, when grandson Franklin Santos Jr. collapsed and died at a high school homecoming dance in Santa Clara. Autopsy results were pending, but the family says the death appears all too familiar.

″I fear for my children and my grandchildren now,″ said Donatila Santos Leonardo, Francisco Martinez Santos’ widow, who has three living children and 10 grandchildren.

″Every day, I don’t know what to expect. It’s like I’m living in a nightmare,″ she told the San Jose Mercury News in a story published Sunday.

The six victims, all of whom seemed healthy, died almost instantly after their heartbeats went awry.

Doctors suspect the deaths are linked by an abnormality in the genetic code. But they need to find out more before they can do something to prevent another death.

″It’s really a grim situation,″ said Victor McKusick, a professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He said he knew of only three or four families with similar syndromes.

Numerous tests have been run on surviving family members, but so far nothing has turned up. Liem said tests can be risky and probably shouldn’t be performed unless a family member exhibits symptoms such as fainting or heart palpitations.

″I would suggest they live normally,″ he said.

Family members, who gathered for their fifth funeral in 10 years over the weekend, said it’s difficult not to focus on the deaths.

Kathy Santos, the ex-wife of surviving brother Steve Santos, said the deaths contributed to the breakup of her marriage.

″We never got to stop mourning,″ she said. Now, it’s hard not to be overprotective of their 5-year-old son, Buddy, she said. ″You just want to take them and put them in a jar.″

Now, Leonardo said, they can only hope.

″At night, when the phone rings, I don’t know what to expect,″ she said. ″We keep asking, ‘What’s going on? Why is this thing happening to us?’ ″

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