Poltergeist actress Heather O'Rourke was just 12 years old in 1988, when she died from a bowel obstruction that her doctors had previously dismissed as Crohn's disease.
Known for her early roles in Happy Days and the Poltergeist film series, Heather O’Rourke was one of the brightest young stars of the 1980s. She was nominated for six Young Artist Awards over the course of her acting career, and she was poised to take Hollywood by storm.
Unfortunately, the child star’s life came to an abrupt and tragic end on Feb. 1, 1988, when she died suddenly at the age of 12. Heather’s official cause of death was listed as intestinal stenosis, a congenital condition that had gone undetected since her birth.
She died on the operating table at the Children’s Hospital of San Diego while surgeons attempted to remove a severe bowel obstruction that had caused septic shock.
Though Heather O’Rourke’s story is a short one, it left behind a timeless legacy.
How Heather O’Rourke’s Career In Hollywood Began
Heather Michele O’Rourke was born on December 27, 1975, in San Diego, California. Her sister, Tammy, was four years older than her and was a budding child actress herself.
In 1981, Tammy was cast in the Steve Martin film Pennies from Heaven. The movie was produced by MGM, and the studio happened to be in talks with director and producer Steven Spielberg at the time for his upcoming film Poltergeist. Spielberg was in MGM’s commissary one day when he spotted Heather and her mother eating lunch while Tammy was on set.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Spielberg approached them and offered them the opportunity of a lifetime: a starring role for young Heather, whom he recognized as a perfect fit to play the role of Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist.
Heather O’Rourke soon signed on for the film’s production, beating out a young Drew Barrymore for the role. Poltergeist ultimately went on to become a massive success, garnering praise from critics and moviegoers alike.
Heather, in particular, was lauded as one of the best parts of the film, with The New York Times writing, “With her wide eyes, long blonde hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence.”
And of course, her iconic delivery of the line, “They’re here!” has remained a pop culture staple ever since.
Inside Heather O’Rourke’s Untimely Death
After the success of Poltergeist, Heather O’Rourke seemed destined for a promising Hollywood career. She was cast in recurring roles on shows like Webster and Happy Days.
O’Rourke also went on to star in the two Poltergeist sequels. In 1987, she filmed Poltergeist III in Chicago, wrapping up her time on set that June. She was looking forward the film’s release, telling PEOPLE at the time, “This one is really good. I think it’s the best.”
Unfortunately, O’Rourke never got to see Poltergeist III premiere.
Just seven months after filming wrapped, on Feb. 1, 1988, the young child star died of cardiac-pulmonary arrest and septic shock resulting from a bowel obstruction that had gone undetected.
“It was an intestinal blockage that had probably been present since birth,” her mother, Kathleen, said. “The X-rays taken, if properly read, would have disclosed that this was the kind of condition that should have been treated surgically.”
Unfortunately, Heather’s doctors had misdiagnosed her a year prior — an oversight that had cost the young girl her life.
How Doctors Failed To Save Her Life
In January 1987, Heather began showing signs of illness. It started out small; she felt nauseous while at home with her family. So, her mother took her to a Kaiser Foundation Hospital facility “three or four times that month.”
“They kept telling me she had the flu,” Kathleen said.
But once Heather’s feet began to swell, it was clear she was not suffering from a simple virus. Eventually, doctors discovered that she had giardiasis, a parasitic infection that was caused by the well water at the O’Rourke family’s home. They prescribed Flagyl to kill it, and it seemed to work.
Kathleen wanted to be sure, though, and so just before production began on Poltergeist III, she took Heather in for a follow-up visit.
“They did an X-ray after giving her this chalky, white barium stuff to drink,” Kathleen said. “And they found that the parasite cleared up, but there still was some kind of inflammation. They called what they saw Crohn’s, and they put her on cortisone and sulfa.”
Although Heather didn’t show any further signs of illness, the cortisone caused her face to puff up. Kathleen said her daughter was “rather embarrassed about her chipmunk cheeks,” so she met with a private doctor who helped Heather ease off the drug.
All was well until Jan. 31, 1988, when Heather came down with flu-like symptoms, with vomiting and abdominal pain.
The next day, her fingers and toes started turning blue, and her stomach looked swollen. On the morning of Feb. 1, she collapsed, and her parents immediately called 911. It took the ambulance just 10 minutes to transport Heather to the hospital, but in that time, the 12-year-old suffered cardiac arrest.
Doctors were able to revive her, and they rushed her into the operating room for exploratory surgery, where they discovered an obstructed bowel. They were able to correct it, but unfortunately, it was too late. Heather was in septic shock. Her heart stopped beating once again on the operating table, and this time, doctors weren’t able to bring her back.
In the wake of her daughter’s death, Kathleen O’Rourke Peele filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Heather’s doctors.
Initially, the O’Rourkes had been told that there was “conclusive radiographic evidence for Crohn’s disease” in Heather. However, Kathleen argued that the operation performed on Heather on the day she died showed that she did not have Crohn’s disease at all but rather an acute bowel obstruction.
Had doctors diagnosed her appropriately back in 1987, they could have saved her life.
Heather O’Rourke’s Lasting Legacy
Despite claims that the set of Poltergeist was cursed, Heather O’Rourke’s death was not the work of any paranormal force. As sad as it was, it was the result of entirely natural causes that doctors were unable to detect for years.
“When I lost Heather, it was like I lost my shadow,” Kathleen later said.
The news of O’Rourke’s death was a shock to the world, too, with many wondering how such an awful tragedy could befall someone so young. Others lamented the early end to a promising career in film.
But despite her amazing success, her biggest source of pride, according to her agent Mike Meyer, was “being elected president of her fifth grade class at Big Bear Elementary School.”
After reading about the life and death of Heather O’Rourke, learn about 11 of the most tragic celebrity deaths in recent history. Or, see what these 18 famous figures would look like today if they hadn’t died young.