Famous People Who Died of Cardiac Arrest

Famous People Who Died of Cardiac Arrest

We often hear about people dying from cardiac arrest. But if asked to define it, most Americans are at a loss to give the correct answer. Contrary to popular belief, cardiac arrest is not the same as having a heart attack.

A heart attack is caused by a blockage in an artery that interrupts the flow of blood to the heart. If the blockage isn’t quickly opened, the part of the heart no longer receiving blood starts to die. One of the main differences is the heart continues to beat during a heart attack but not during cardiac arrest. A heart attack can cause cardiac arrest and sudden death, but it is a different type of illness with different causal factors.

Cardiac arrest is defined as “the abrupt loss of heart function in a person who may or may not have diagnosed heart disease”. It occurs due to a malfunction of the heart’s electrical system, such as an arrhythmia, and can cause death because the heart stops working properly.

Cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 300,000 out-of-hospital cases diagnosed by medical professionals every year. Yet, in most cases cardiac arrest can be reversed if the victim receives treatment (CPR and a defibrillator) within a few minutes. The key is having someone on hand with training in how to treat a cardiac arrest, which can be easily obtained from companies like SureFire CPR.

Common Causes of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The life-threatening arrhythmias associated with cardiac arrest usually develop as a result of pre-existing heart conditions, including:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy)
  • Valvular heart disease
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Electrical problems in the heart

Other risk factors can include:

  • A family history of coronary artery disease
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Illegal drug use
  • Age
  • A previous heart attack or episode of cardiac arrest

Famous Hollywood/L.A. Celebrities Who Died of Cardiac Arrest

Sadly, Hollywood and Los Angeles have a long history of movie stars, musicians and other famous people who died from cardiac arrest.  These include:

Michael Jackson. One of the biggest pop stars in the music industry, Jackson died in 2009 at age 58. Most people attribute his death to a drug overdose. But the actual cause of death was cardiac arrest, likely caused by taking a combination of lorazepam and Propofol, a surgical anesthetic. Jackson had become addicted to prescription drugs, specifically, pain-killing opioids, after undergoing multiple cosmetic surgeries and suffering scalp injuries suffered in a fire. Jackson’s personal physician found him in his room on the morning of June 25th, not breathing and with almost no pulse. Despite administering CPR, he was unable to revive Jackson before he died.

Tom Petty. One of the most popular rockers of his generation, Petty died in October, 2017 at the relatively young age of 66 after suffering a cardiac arrest due to an accidental overdose of painkillers. Petty had been taking the drugs, which included the very powerful opiates fentanyl and oxycodone as well as several sedatives, to medicate the pain of a broken hip and other injuries. He was found unresponsive in the bedroom of his Malibu home in the early morning and was rushed to the UCLA medical center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Brittany Murphy. A star of the stage and screen, Murphy enjoyed a short but successful career as a film and stage actress, singer, and voice artist. One morning in December, 2009, Murphy’s mother found her collapsed in the shower, unconscious and barely breathing.  Her mother immediately called 911, and Murphy was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for emergency treatment. Unfortunately, she was pronounced dead due to cardiac arrest shortly after her arrival. There was speculation that the cardiac arrest could have been caused by an undetected heart condition, type-2 diabetes, or thyroid problems Murphy was rumored to have. The Chief Coroner who performed the autopsy said that Murphy likely died from “natural causes,” but others pointed out that it is rare for a woman of her age to die suddenly from cardiac arrest. To this day, the cause of the cardiac arrest remains a mystery.

Heather O’Rourke. A popular American child actress discovered at age five by renowned movie director Steven Spielberg, O’Rourke is a sad example that cardiac arrest can occur at any age.  She died at the young age of 12 of due to cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis. O’Rourke became ill with giardiasis, a parasitic disease that induces fever, diarrhea, weight loss and other symptoms, about a year prior to her death. She was prescribed steroids to treat the disease, but in January of 1988 she became violently ill again and collapsed at home. Paramedics arrived to rush her to the hospital, but she suffered cardiac arrest on the way and died later that day.

Christopher Reeve. A highly popular actor, film director, producer, screenwriter, author, and activist, Reeve was most famous for his role as Superman before a tragic equestrian accident confined him to a wheelchair. After living with his condition for many years, Reeve required in-patient treatment at Northern Westchester Hospital for a pressure wound due to a bed sore, which frequently occurs with people suffering from paralysis. The wound became severely infected, causing a serious systemic infection. Reeve fell into a coma after suffering a cardiac arrest and never came out of it. He passed away with his family at his side in October 2004 at age 52.

John Ritter. Ritter achieved success and fame for his roles in the highly successful TV sitcoms “Three’s Company” and “Eight Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter”. In September of 2003, he fell ill with an aortic dissection, a serious condition in which the inner layer of the aorta tears, causing blood to leak and the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate. This led to cardiac arrest, which took Ritter’s life at age 54.

Alex Haley. A prolific writer, Haley was best known for penning “The Autobiography of Malcom X” and “Roots: The Saga of An American Family,” which drew a record-breaking television audience of 130 million viewers when it was aired in 1977. One evening at home, Haley suffered an apparent heart attack, suspected to be caused by underlying heart disease. He was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, Washington, where the doctors applied CPR. Unfortunately, the damage to his heart was too extensive and he died within an hour of being admitted to the hospital.

Famous Hollywood/L.A. Celebrities Who Became Life-Savers

Anyone can be a life-saver in a cardiac emergency – even a Hollywood heavyweight. Over the years, several film and TV stars have stepped up to deliver life-saving assistance in cardiac emergencies, including:

Matthew McConaughey. American actor Matthew McConaughey has starred in a wide range of popular movies – everything from animated comedy “Sing” to sci-fi thriller “Interstellar.” In addition to possessing a broad range of acting talents, McConaughey is CPR-certified. At the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, McConaughey performed CPR on a woman who had suffered a seizure. Bystanders applauded McConaughey for his heroic efforts, and some remarked that he was ready to administer life-saving support when others panicked.

Clint Eastwood. “Dirty Harry” star Clint Eastwood proved to be more than just an ordinary bystander at the 2014 Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament. Steve John, the tournament’s director, was enjoying appetizers with Eastwood and others when he choked on a piece of cheese. John told CBS Sports that Eastwood immediately saw that he could not breathe and administered the Heimlich maneuver. By doing so, Eastwood saved John’s life.

Ryan Reynolds. Thanks to CPR training, “Deadpool” actor Ryan Reynolds became a real-life superhero to his nephew. In a June 2017 Instagram post, Reynolds stated that CPR training he had received years earlier helped him save his nephew’s life. Additionally, Reynolds noted that CPR training “takes only a few hours and it’s also kinda, sorta fun.”

Dustin Hoffman. Actor Dustin Hoffman may be best-known for his roles in “The Graduate,” “Rain Man” and other award-winning movies. Yet for one jogger, Hoffman may always be best-known for his role as a life-saver. While in London, Hoffman once saw a jogger collapse in front of him. Hoffman called paramedics and stayed with the jogger until they arrived on scene.

Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who portrayed Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” films, faced a life-threatening situation similar to Hoffman’s. Lawrence was walking her dog in Santa Monica, California when a woman collapsed in front of her. That day, Lawrence played the role of hero and attempted to revive the woman and called 911. She also waited with the woman until paramedics arrived.

Omarosa. Omarosa, an American writer and participant on the reality TV show “The Apprentice,” once provided life-saving assistance to then-boyfriend Michael Clarke Duncan. When Duncan was suffering a heart attack, Omarosa performed CPR and called 911. Best of all, Omarosa managed to keep Duncan alive until paramedics were available. Omarosa later embarked on a campaign to promote CPR training and heart health following Duncan’s death in September 2012.

Jack Osbourne. Jack Osbourne, an actor and producer who has appeared in “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” “The Osbournes” and other movies and TV shows, likely expected to enjoy a worry-free vacation when he and his wife traveled to Hawaii for their honeymoon in 2012. Yet during the trip, Osbourne noticed a woman who appeared to be having trouble in the water. Osbourne discovered the woman was simultaneously drowning and having a heart attack. Fortunately, Osbourne was CPR-certified, and he was able to resuscitate the woman. Osbourne waited with the woman until advanced medical personnel arrived as well.

It Could Happen to Someone You Know

Medical crises happen every day. Knowing what to do in an emergency can mean the difference between saving someone’s life or watching them succumb to cardiac arrest. That’s why SureFire CPR offer instructor-led CPR classes and a wide range of other courses in emergency procedures.

Surefire CPR students save lives. You can too. Sign up for a class today!

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About the author

I spent 15 years as a firefighter and paramedic...

And too often I would arrive on the scene of someone unconscious, surrounded by a circle of people feeling helpless. Sometimes those people would even have CPR training but lacked the confidence and experience to act.

That’s why I started SureFire CPR. Our classes are practical and engaging – teaching you the crucial skills you need to know what to do and feel empowered to take action.

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Zack Zarrilli, Founder

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