Sherlock Holmes fans love a locked-door mystery, so it was inevitable that the accidental death of TV comic Bob Saget in a Florida hotel room would get people buzzing. “Murder!” wrote suspicious fans on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else rumors flourish online.
Authorities in Orlando, where Saget’s body was found by a hotel employee on Jan. 9, ruled that he’d died of a brain injury after an accidental fall. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department found no evidence of an intruder, nor a struggle. Neither alcohol nor illegal drugs were involved.
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Sheriff John Mina told reporters that Saget’s injuries appeared to have been caused by a fall where he struck the back of his head on a flat surface, such as a bathroom floor. He somehow got into bed, but succumbed to a brain bleed. His family released a statement agreeing with the sheriff and begging public forbearance.
Not that it stopped anybody. According to Fox News, “[t]he growing belief that Saget’s injuries are from something more than a fall had experts weighing in on various media outlets.” Doctors compared the severity of the comedian’s skull fracture to an auto accident victim’s. “This is significant trauma,” Dr. Gavin Britz, the chair in neurosurgery at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, told The New York Times. “This is something I find with someone with a baseball bat to the head, or who has fallen from 20 or 30 feet.”
On his Daily Howler blog, Bob Somerby, a sometime standup comic who knew Saget professionally, grew exasperated after watching a CNN colloquy between Don Lemon and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “We wondered if anyone watching the segment,” he wrote, “had failed to wonder whether Saget had perhaps been the victim of a violent assault.”
Well, not me, particularly. But then I’d gotten my bell rung in a rugby match many years ago. Aroused with smelling salts, I finished the game on my feet, but woke up in a hospital a week later diagnosed with a concussion but no memory of how I’d gotten there. I’d passed out over breakfast. An ambulance took me to the emergency room. Brain injuries can be tricky.
The human skull can be extraordinarily resilient but also surprisingly fragile. “It’s like an egg cracking,” Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, a concussion expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told the Times. “You hit it in one spot, and it can crack from the back to the front.” He also doubted Saget was ever fully conscious after the injury.
But another aspect of the tragedy caught my eye. According to the Times, the autopsy report also showed signs of two prescription medicines: “Clonazepam, commonly known as Klonopin, a benzodiazepine that is used to prevent seizures and treat panic attacks. Tests also found Trazodone, an antidepressant, the report said ... [D]octors said that they could make people sleepy and contribute to a fall.”
Well, no kidding.
So, here’s my story: Two years ago, my wife, Diane, an otherwise active, healthy woman in her 70s, began to experience sudden, unexplained falls. No dizziness or unconsciousness. She’d just go down like a marionette with its strings cut.
In between, she complained about weakness in her legs.
They kept her overnight once at the university hospital, but found no cause. Over several months, doctors ran her through every high-tech diagnostic machine they have there: X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, brain scans, etc. She wore a heart monitor for two different months. They referred her to cardiologists, neurologists, even a neurosurgeon.
Nobody could find anything wrong with her. No heart problems, no spinal issues, no tumors or brain abnormalities, no nothing. The famed neurosurgeon basically told us the referral was a waste of his time and ours.
Once every few weeks, down she’d go.
Her worst injury was a broken shoulder and torn rotator cuff — painful but not life-threatening. I teased her about needing Tommy John surgery, which, being a baseball coach’s daughter, she found (mildly) amusing.
Thankfully, no head injuries.
Then one day her girlfriend Carla, a physician at the V.A., asked to see a list of prescriptions Diane took. (She’d been reluctant to interfere up to then.)
At the time, Diane and I both used Trazodone for sleep. Carla said, “I don’t let my patients over 65 take Trazodone.”
I put the question to Maggie, our pharmacist, who said, “If it can put you to sleep, it can make you fall down.”
Within 24 hours of quitting, Diane felt dramatically stronger. The cardiologist said she needn’t come back. When I told him what Maggie said, he affirmed, “She’s absolutely right.”
Med school specialists are geared for heroic interventions. Simple causes can be overlooked. Read the label. Talk to your pharmacist.
Common side effects for Klonopin, the other drug Saget was taking, include: “drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, unsteadiness, and loss of orientation.” He was also COVID positive.
Sometimes, things are simpler than people want to believe.
Gene Lyons is a syndicated columnist and National Magazine Award winner.
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