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Experts Say Circumstances of Actress’ Death ‘Distinctly Unusual’

February 3, 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 encounted ghosts and warned ″They’re heeeere 3/8″ in ″Poltergeist″ and ″They’re baaaack 3/8″ 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,″ 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.

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.

But as the intestinal muscle upstream of the narrowing is strained by trying to push material through the narrowing, ″there may be more and more widening of the bowel tissue″ so it becomes infested with bacteria and eventually perforates or bursts, Hyman said.

When intestinal narrowing is obvious, the defect is corrected by surgically removing the narrow section and connecting the normal sections on both sides, the experts said.

Hyman said congenital narrowing of the small intestine occurs in roughly one of every 50,000 live births, while such narrowing of the large intestine is about 10 times more rare.

But a lack of symptoms of congenital bowel narrowing before age 12 is ″distinctly unusual,″ he said.

Sinatra agreed, speculating Heather died in what he called an ″unusual presentation of a rare disorder.″

It was so rare that other doctors were puzzled.

″I cannot understand what precipitated the death because it’s usually clear when they’re born they have an important disease,″ said Dr. Carlo Di Lorenzo, a University of Southern California pediatrician.

″It just doesn’t seem to quite make sense,″ said Dr. Hartley Cohen, a USC gastroenterologist who said his colleagues ″find it surprising there was no preceeding history of problems.″

″It’s weird,″ Meyer said. ″She was completely healthy Saturday, they thought she had the flu on Sunday and she was dead on Monday.″

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