Comedy icon Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989, at age 77

By Natalie Stone
March 06, 2019 04:37 PM
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It’s been nearly 30 years since the queen of comedy, Lucille Ball, died, and new discoveries about her life and death are still being uncovered.

This Sunday, Reelz’s Autopsy, The Last Hours of … will investigate Ball’s final days, including the popular street drug she used to ease chest pain.

“Lucille Ball died of a rupture of the aorta. This tells me how she died, but not what led to such extensive damage to this critical blood vessel,” forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter says in a preview of the series.

Before her death on April 26, 1989, at age 77, the I Love Lucy star “was using a drug that became a popular sex aide,” according to the teaser.

“The street name for amyl nitrite is poppers. Poppers are a strong smelling inhalant often associated with sex,” Dr. Hunter says. “But it’s original purpose was as a prescription drug to treat pain in the chest.”

He shares, “As early as 1984, four years before her death, Lucille Ball was using this inhalant to ease pains in her chest and heart. And that could be a warning sign of already established cardiovascular disease.”

But that wasn’t the only warning sign, Dr. Hunter says.

Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

“My investigation has discovered reports of a major setback for Lucille, some two years before her life ended,” says Dr. Hunter. “And I want to find out what impact this had on her health.”

During his investigation, Dr. Hunter explains how cystic medial necrosis was a contributing cause to Ball’s death.

“The slow tearing of Lucille’s aortic lining that had presented itself to doctors eight days earlier had ended in what reports refer to as an aortic blowout. Surgery could not fix all the damage to this major blood vessel. But what led to this damage? Lucille’s death certificate states cystic medial necrosis as a contributing cause to her death,” he explains in PEOPLE’s exclusive sneak peek at the episode.

“Cystic medial necrosis is the breakdown of muscle, collagen and elasten in the large blood vessels throughout the body. When they lose this elasticity and support, it makes them more liable to tear and rupture,” he says.

“But Lucille seemed so healthy just one month before her death. I want to investigate if there were any previously unknown causes of her heart problems,” he adds.

Dr. Hunter questions: “Could a mystery illness that she contracted when she was just 17 years old have played a part in the death of America’s most loved Lucy?”

At 5:47 A.M. on April 26, Ball died in Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center when her aorta ruptured and brought on a sudden and irreparable cardiac arrest.

Ron Galella/WireImage

On April 19, 1989, eight days before her death, she complained of chest pains and was rushed to the hospital, where cardiologist Yuri Busi diagnosed “a dissecting aortic aneurysm”— a tunnel through the wall of the largest artery that feeds blood to the body.

A hundred minutes later she was on the operating table, and during the next seven hours and 40 minutes a team of specialists replaced her aortic valve and a portion of the aorta itself — a high-risk procedure that can only be performed while the patient’s heart is stopped.

Despite her age, Ball recovered rapidly. When she woke up in intensive case, she looked up at husband Gary Morton and calmly asked, “How’s the dog doing?” He told her Tinker was doing fine. Then she asked, “Was it a big surgery?” He said, “It was a big surgery, but it was a good surgery.”

But a week ahead of her death, she woke with severe back pains. When her aorta ruptured again, she was dead within minutes.

A team of doctors and nurses worked frantically but failed to revive her. “I don’t think she had enough time to know what was happening to her,” Busi said.

Ball was survived by daughter Lucie, 67, and son Desi Jr., 66 — whom she shared with late ex-husband, Desi Arnaz — and second husband Morton, who died in 1999.

Autopsy: The Last Hours of… Lucille Ball premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Reelz.