This television episode caused more people to reach out to me over any other. This Is Us has been building up to Jack’s death for eighteen months. It needed to be big. It needed to be dramatic. Can you tell I’ve been watching the show? It was really none of those and medically— well, just weird to be honest.
If you haven’t watched the episode then don’t read this post because it will reveal his cause of death . . . like right now.
Jack’s ultimate demise? A heart attack called the widow maker caused by the stress of the fire.
Jack is in intense smoke and heat for several minutes. He emerges and is first checked by EMS. He is being given oxygen and a dressing to his arm for “2nd degree burns”. The EMS person says she can’t treat the burn and he is seemingly refusing transport, but she does encourage him to be seen. Also, giving oxygen is correct, but it is not the right type of mask. A note on burns. Burns will evolve over the next several days so you don’t really know how severe a burn will be for a while.
Jack does eventually go to the hospital to get his burns checked. The doctor is initially giving him instructions on burn care. The doctor says, “I’d like your heart rate to come down.” and glances at the monitor— which doesn’t have any readings on it. No waveforms. No numbers. He then says, “There’s soot in your airway so we’ll have to run some tests. The swelling is minor.”
That’s about it. The doctor tells Jack he basically dodged a bullet and seems none too concerned about his potential airway damage.
Just as I mentioned above, airway burns from smoke inhalation are similar to skin burns in that they evolve over time. Smoke inhalation and the potential for upper airway swelling is taken very seriously. There is a nice overview here. At the very least, there should be discussion of admitting Jack to the hospital. As quoted from the article, “Studies have shown that initial evaluation is not a good predictor of the airway obstruction that may ensue later secondary to rapidly progressing edema.” If there is concern about significant injury to the airway then the patient is electively intubated until the airway injury heals. It’s VERY difficult to intubate someone with a lot of airway swelling.
Shortly after this consultation, Rebecca decides to make a phone call and get a candy bar from the vending machine. In that, perhaps under two-three minutes passage of time, Jack codes and dies. Even though she is just outside the ER nurses station, she never hears a code being called. Doesn’t see the commotion.
The doctor approaches her and says, “One of complications of smoke inhalation is that it puts a terrible stress on the lungs and therefore the heart. Your husband went into cardiac arrest. It was catastrophic and I’m afraid we lost him . . . Mrs. Pearson, your husband has died.”
After a few exchanges she goes to Jack’s room where there is a spotlight shining on his chest with a cursory ambu bag at the head of his bead . . . but no other equipment. I’m telling you in two minutes, a code has barely just begun and is never called so hastily . . . like ever. Later, explaining the event to Miguel, Rebecca says he had a widow maker’s heart attack.
The widow maker is a real term for a heart attack. It generally refers to occlusion of the left main coronary artery that feeds the left side of the heart. It is the same heart attack celebrity trainer Bob Harper had and survived. The reason the widow maker can be so devastating is that the left ventricle is the largest, strongest pumping chamber. If it dies . . . well, you’re hosed.
There would be no realistic way the doctors would know it was specifically this kind of heart attack as shown in the episode without an autopsy. Presumably, Jack went into one of the lethal heart rhythms, v-tach or v-fib, at the time of his code. In the time frame given on the show, the medical team would have barely started CPR and given the first line treatment which is electricity. A 12-lead ECG can be a strong diagnostic tool for this type of heart attack, but they never did one. Had they done that early on, they probably would have seen the changes.
Also, he would likely have some signs and symptoms. Chest pain. Nausea. Left arm pain. Sweating. Demonstrating these might make the scenario seem more believable. Having Rebecca witness the code would have been more dramatic.
Also, it would make more sense that he would suffer this cardiac event while he is actually under duress— such as during the rescue of the children and the dog.
The only way to truly know that this is the type of heart attack Jack suffered as presented in the show would be to conduct an autopsy.
This Is Us— thanks for killing off a beloved character in a totally lame way— at least from a medical standpoint.