Figuring out a cause of death 30 years post-mortem.
December 27, 2011 3:06 PM   Subscribe

How can I find out what killed my father?

My father died over thirty years ago, at the age of 31. He was apparently riding in a cab in Manhattan when...something happened. He was taken to hospital and was either DOA or died there shortly thereafter. No autopsy was performed due to religious objections on the part of his family.

We were always told it was a heart attack, but without any autopsy or definitive evidence, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion. There's no other family history of sudden death, and his own parents are alive and healthy in their late 80s. I suppose it could've been many things -- a fatal arrhythmia, a burst aneurysm, a pulmonary embolism -- who knows! Is there anything I can do now to find out? Would there be any hospital records left, or a police report? Would it be worth tracking down the cab driver to see what exactly happened?

I realize it's a long shot, but any leads would be helpful!
posted by greatgefilte to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
you might be able to get a hold of his death certificate and see if you can contact whichever doctor signed off on it. you might also contact the hospital where he expired and see if they will let you see his chart (although they might have to go digging in archives, and HIPAA might prevent that).

i would probably start with the death certificate though.
posted by koroshiya at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2011

You can request the death certificate from the NYC DOH, and children of the deceased are explicitly allowed to see the cause of death. (Form is behind that link.)
posted by zvs at 3:28 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your status as child of the deceased is valuable when you are researching government records. I had to transfer a vehicle title when my father died, and I asked the lady at the DMV whether or not my mother, the executor needed to sign off on it.

She looked at me and said, "She's just his wife. You are his next of kin, sir. I'm sorry about your dad."

It took me by surprise, but it enabled me to get a lot of other things done with zero hassle as well.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:38 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

My dad died ~4 years ago, we think, of a fatal arrhythmia/cardiac arrest because he died while he was out jogging and since it was outside the police ordered an autopsy and ruled out a heart attack or aneurism. I guess if he had died at home they wouldn't have ordered one. The pathologist wouldn't actually say that it was cardiac arrest because when my dad was found he was already dead; they will only say it was that if the person is found while still in arrest.

So I guess my point is that my dad died 4 years ago, had an autopsy and everything, and we still don't really know how/why he died. Since that happened I find myself more aware of other cases of sudden death and it seems that most of them are considered cardiac arrest and the cause isn't always apparent. The pathologist danced around the words but he said it was probably a ventricular arrhythmia which is the fatal kind.

I think the death certificate says cardiac ischemia or something like that. Good luck to you in your quest for information.
posted by fromageball at 4:26 PM on December 27, 2011

Unless the doctor who pronounced him had a clear other cause of death (like a big fat swollen leg that would suggest deep venous thrombosis that then caused a pulmonary embolism), the certificate probably just says "cardiac arrest" or "myocardial infarction," because you have to put something, even when you're not sure, and there's no autopsy done. (One of many reasons you should be highly skeptical of death certificate data.)

Hospital records might still exist. Highly doubtful the physician that pronounced him would remember his case, but I guess it's possible.

Surprised an autopsy wasn't done (any unexpected death has to be referred to the coroner's office in NYC), but the coroner can decline unless the family wants one, and the family can decline for religious reasons, unless there's concern for foul play.
posted by gramcracker at 4:35 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

No one has mentioned insurance yet. It's a real long shot, but if there was a policy in existence the insurance co might have some information on the cause of death. It's probably just copied directly from the death certificate, but it's possible their file might have more information if any "extra" information was collected around the date of death.

I suspect getting this information from them (unless you were a beneficiary) might be hard.
posted by NoDef at 4:51 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Without an autopsy having been done the death certificate --in this situation-- is pretty worthless. Sudden death can be brought on by any number of things.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:33 PM on December 27, 2011

It's possible that they did no autopsy but did a tox screening of some sort. When my father died the death certificate was held up for several weeks because even though he was an older guy with heart problems the coroner was new-ish and wanted to cover all the bases. I can't remember offhand if the death certificate included the negative findings of the tox screening but it did rule out a bunch of things which might be of interest to you if you have access to that information.

I asked the lady at the DMV whether or not my mother, the executor needed to sign off on it.

This differs from state to state. I had to be the executor to transfer the title on my dad's car. fyi.
posted by jessamyn at 12:23 AM on December 28, 2011

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