HEALTH May 2016 © Senior Wire News Service
A Healthy Age By Amy Abbott
When television icon Patty Duke died in late March at 69, shocked fans learned her death was caused by sepsis of the intestine. Anyone born in the Eisenhower or Truman administrations grew up watching the iconic star of stage and screen who later became a mental health activist.
From Child Star to Activist
At 16, Duke was the youngest Oscar winner for her 1963 portrayal of Helen Keller aside Anne Bancroft in the film The Miracle Worker. Duke originated the role on Broadway from 1959 to 1961 with Bancroft as teacher Anne Sullivan. Duke also won a Golden Globe for her performance. (Tatum O’Neal stole Duke’s youngest Academy Award winner crown with her honor for Paper Moon in 1973.)
For baby boomers, the characters and theme song of “The Patty Duke Show” still ring in our heads 50 years later. Duke played twins, Patty and Cathy (“when cousins are two of a kind” proclaimed the catchy tune). Patty was frequently in trouble; while Cathy, her cousin from England, was more refined. The show, naturally in black and white, was hokey and we loved it.
The ABC sitcom ran for three seasons and netted Duke an Emmy. For a brief time in 1965, Duke’s pop hit “Don’t Just Stand There” held in the Top Ten hits.
Duke had a long television and film career, with other notables such as Valley of the Dolls, and a turnabout role in a remake of The Miracle Worker as Anne Sullivan in 1979. She won another Emmy for her interpretation of Helen Keller’s acclaimed teacher.
Behind the screen, Duke served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and was a prolific writer. In her 1987 autobiography Call Me Anna, Duke detailed her tumultuous childhood and lifetime battles with bipolar disorder.
Thirty years ago, the discussion of mental illness was not as open or frank as it is today. Duke was ahead of her time with her willingness to discuss a difficult childhood and struggles with mental illness. A second book A Brilliant Madness Living with Maniac Depression Illness, was published in the 1990s.
Duke had three sons and was married to former drill sergeant Michael Pearce at the time of her death. Her former husband and father of two of her sons (one by adoption) was John Astin, an actor noted for his role as Gomez in the television show “The Addams Family.”
An Untimely Death by a Lurking Killer
Not yet 70, Duke died at her Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, home of sepsis from a ruptured intestine, according to her online biography. The Mayo Clinic defines sepsis as a “potentially life-threatening complication of an infection. Sepsis occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight infection trigger inflammation responses throughout the body. This inflammation can trigger changes that may damage multiple organs. Mayo reports that if the disease progresses to “septic shock,” blood pressure may plummet and death may be the result.
While we do not know the events that led up to Duke’s illness, medicine tells us that sepsis is of particular risk to older adults. Many of us have compromised immune systems from other disease states. We may not recognize the symptoms.
Because of her celebrity, the news of Duke’s death by sepsis may increase awareness among seniors. Cleveland, Ohio, NBC-affiliate WKYC reported that Google searches on sepsis increased 800 percent after Duke’s death.
The Sepsis Alliance organization was featured in multiple venues on March 30, the day after Duke’s death as awareness jumped across the country. The article highlighted symptoms that everyone (and especially seniors or those with compromised immune systems) should know. The signs of sepsis are outlined in a fact sheet on the Center for Disease Control website.
S – Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
E – Extreme pain or general discomfort, as in “worst ever.”
P – Pale or discolored skin
S – Sleepy, difficult to wake up or confused
I – “I feel like I might die.”
S – Shortness of breath
These symptoms together seem grim, but someone with a painful bowel or frequent asthma attacks or another kind of compromised immune system may miss symptoms. Your mindfulness to these symptoms in your own or a loved one’s life may help you avoid the tragedy of an early death, like Duke’s.
Find my books and columns at www.amyabbottwrites.com.