Suit Blames Doctors in Death of Young Actress

Times Staff Writer

Heather O’Rourke, the young actress pulled into a supernatural vacuum in the “Poltergeist” movies, died because the doctors who treated her throughout her childhood failed to diagnose a long-standing obstruction of the small bowel that led to her death on Feb. 1, according to a wrongful-death suit filed Wednesday by a law firm representing the girl’s mother.

The 12-year-old actress, who warned, “They’re heeere!” in “Poltergeist” and “They’re baaack!” in the sequel, died on the operating table at Children’s Hospital of San Diego. At the time, hospital officials said, death was attributed to septic shock, which caused cardiac arrest. Officials explained that septic shock was brought on by congenital stenosis of the intestine, a bowel blockage the girl evidently had from birth.

The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court against Kaiser Foundation Hospital of San Diego and Southern California Permanente Medical Group on behalf of Kathleen O’Rourke Peel, Heather’s mother and the administrator of her estate, did not specify damages. She lives in the San Diego County community of Lakeside.


Decline to Comment

Spokesmen for the Kaiser hospital and the medical group declined to comment on the charges in the lawsuit.

“We have reviewed the case extensively and we are convinced that the care we provided was appropriate,” a Kaiser Permanente spokesman said.

Children’s Hospital was not included as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Sanford M. Gage, the family’s attorney, said that if the Kaiser doctors who treated Heather from birth had properly diagnosed the bowel obstruction, rather than simply prescribing medication for an intestinal inflammation, they could have performed a simple operation “that would have cured her.”

Exploratory Surgery

The girl exhibited flu symptoms on Jan. 31. The next day her condition worsened and she was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, then by helicopter to Children’s, where exploratory bowel surgery was performed.

The “Poltergeist” films, first released in 1982, told of a mid-America family living an idyllic life in the suburbs when their young daughter begins communing with creatures she sees on the television screen.