Autopsy confirms air embolism

By Michelle Roberts

Arizona Daily Wildcat

An air bubble blocking blood flow to UA football player Damon Terrell's heart was the "terminal event" that ended his life, an autopsy report revealed on Friday.

Terrell died Sept. 7 after suffering cardiopulmonary arrest while recuperating at University Medical Center. UMC staff attempted to resuscitate him for more than two hours.

The air embolism that brought on the arrest most likely developed when a dialysis catheter, used to compensate for improper kidney function, was removed from his neck, the autopsy report said.

The autopsy revealed diseases in the kidneys, liver, lungs and heart, and muscle damage to the right leg, which was expected because of the medical condition for which he was being treated.

Terrell had been hospitalized for nearly a month before his death. He was taken to UMC after he collapsed in practice on Aug. 10.

He was diagnosed with dehydration and exertional rhabdomyolysis, a disease that entails the breakdown of skeletal muscle.

Exertional rhabdomyolysis is a rapid-spreading disease produced in susceptible people by strenuous exercise. Rhabdomyolysis is potentially fatal.

While in the hospital, he developed a series of complications related to the disease, the autopsy stated.

The complications included low blood pressure, metabolic problems, the death of liver cells, kidney failure and a dangerous swelling of muscles.

The report said Terrell died of exertional rhabdomyolysis with the air embolism being the terminal event.

His condition was complicated when his spleen ruptured, which probably was the result of swelling induced by the sickling of red blood cells induced by low oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

Chief Medical Examiner Bruce Parks said formation of an air embolism upon removal of the dialysis catheter is fairly uncommon, but that it happens occasionally.

Air embolisms result when negative pressure causes air to be sucked through an opening.

But the report did say an unexpected enlargement of the heart was found.

Parks said enlarged hearts are most often found in people with high blood pressure. He said Terrell had high blood pressure when he initially was admitted into the hospital, and then had later incidents of high blood pressure while there.

"I'm not sure if it was chronic," Park said. "Unusually, a heart enlarges over time. I don't know (if) it could have enlarged in that time (while in the hospital), but I wouldn't rule it out."

UMC refused to comment on Terrell Friday at the request of his family.

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