Prince | Cause of Death | Why is it still unknown?

  • By Anissa Nahnah

The artist formerly known as Prince

The artist formerly known as Prince

 

One week on why do we still not know?

Prince Rogers Nelson aged 57 was confirmed as dead on the 21st April 2016 in a day that has brought tears and statements from celebrities, officials and civilians from around the world.

On 7th April 2016, Prince postponed two performances from his Piano & A Microphone Tour, at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta; the venue released a statement saying he had influenza. Prince rescheduled and performed the show on 14th April, despite not recovering. While flying back to Minneapolis early the morning of the 15th, he became unresponsive, and his private jet made an emergency landing at Quad City International Airport in Moline, Illinois, so that he could receive medical treatment. Representatives said he suffered from “bad dehydration” and had had influenza for several weeks. Prince was seen bicycling the next day in his hometown of Chanhassen, Minnesota. He shopped that evening at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis for Record Store Day, and made a brief appearance at a dance party at his Paisley Park recording studio complex, stating that he felt recovered.

On 19th April, he attended a performance by singer Lizz Wright at the Dakota Jazz Club.

On 21st April, at 09:43 local time the Carver County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 emergency phone call requesting that an ambulance be sent to Prince’s home at Paisley Park. The caller initially told the dispatcher that Prince was unconscious, then moments later reported that Prince appeared to be dead. Emergency responders found Prince unresponsive in an elevator and performed CPR, but were unable to revive him; he was pronounced dead at 10:07 local time. Following an autopsy, his remains have now been cremated; their location to be kept private.


So why, almost exactly one week on do we still not know the cause of death?

Wild rumors from the low brow sewage of tabloid media  have made wild and possibly even liable claims that they categorically know the cause of death to be: AIDS, influenza, suicide, murder, accidental overdose of prescription medicine, sleep deprivation after working 157 hours straight with out rest and many other quack conspiracy theories and lies. The UK’s trash tabloid newspapers have perhaps come up with the most inconsistent and shockingly sensationalist “factual” claims.

In reality we might not know what killed pop superstar Prince for weeks or even months. While forensic themed TV shows make it look quick and easy, and the technology has improved, modern death investigations still take some considerable time.

The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Ramsey, Minnesota, performed the autopsy on the 57-year-old musician on Friday 22nd April 2016. Dr. A. Quinn Strobl finished the procedure in four hours, according to the office, but Dr. Strobl won’t declare what caused Prince’s death until after the office gathers all of the relevant details.

In a case such as this, the medical examiner’s office does a routine but complicated kind of detective work which relies on reaching out to family members and doctors to gather medical history and understand what prescriptions the person was taking. The office might examine the scene of the person’s death. Tissue samples will be sent out for lab tests, and it will want results double checking and reconfirmed. This investigation happens to fall under the jurisdiction of offices that typically juggle dozens of cases at once.

“When ‘Star Trek’ is real, you’ll have a tricorder that can determine what happened to someone immediately, but it doesn’t work that way yet,” said Kevin Lothridge, CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center. “The technology is a lot faster than it used to be, but there has to be quality assurance in the lab to corroborate what you may have found in the field.”
Although Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson doesn’t believe that the death was suspicious, the department decided to process the scene “because this was an unwitnessed death of a middle-aged adult,” he said. “That is also normal protocol. It is not different from what we normally do.”
If a person is killed by something obvious such as a knife or gun, or if the person is older or has been sick with cancer, the medical examiner may determine cause of death quickly. When there are no obvious signs of trauma or suicide, the medical examination may be much more involved.
In Prince’s case, the medical examiner’s office decided to run a full toxicology scan that could take weeks. Toxicology tests are typically what takes the longest to run in a death investigation.
“It is a very detailed process that cannot often be done in a few hours or a few days or even a few weeks. More involved investigations can take several months,” said Bruce Goldberger, a professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “By now, the medical examiner probably knows or has a pretty good handle on the cause and manner of Prince’s death, but you have to do all these other tests that are a part of an investigation to officially certify the cause and manner of death.”

A very intrusive process

In an autopsy, an examiner will gather a number of samples from a body to test. Blood will be drawn from a variety of areas. A scientist might also take gastric contents, bile, liver, hair, nails or samples from the person’s eye.
The first test of a person’s blood is done using something called an immunoassay to look for commonly used legal or illegal drugs. These initial toxicology tests can determine whether someone has taken something innocuous, such as allergy medicine or antidepressants, or something like opiates or amphetamines. Blood tests can also help determine whether someone died after being exposed to something in the environment, such as carbon monoxide or pesticides or some kind of heavy metal or inhalants. If the tests come out positive for a drug, the lab runs further tests to make a definitive determination as to whether that particular drug caused the person’s death.
If you’ve ever had to pass a drug test in your line of work or sports, you will know that a lab can quickly figure out whether you’ve been using drugs by testing your urine. With a dead person, urine might not always be available. Even if it is, urine might not always tell a scientist what was going on at the exact time of death or at the time it was collected, since it takes time for the body to eliminate drugs through urine.
Labs might examine liver samples since that organ helps your body metabolize most drugs and other substances, such as alcohol. Even if a toxicologist can’t find the drug in a person’s blood, it may turn up in the liver. They might also look at stomach contents to see whether a person recently ingested a drug; undigested pills could still be in their system. They might test the vitreous humor, the clear substance in eyes, for drugs or alcohol. Drugs and other toxins and substances can also show up in hair and nail samples.
It is not just chemicals, toxins, drugs and substances that an autopsy looks for.
Full skeletal and tissue scans and detailed examination may also be required to ascertain or rule out any organic or physical cause of death, such as illness, a hemorrhage, bacteria, disease, fungal or material spores, internal bleeding, damaged organs, tissue or bones etc.
Whilst it must be an agonizing wait for the family to finally have closure over the final moments of their loved one’s life, it is essential to conduct a thorough investigation and reconfirm all findings in order to arrive at the true conclusion.


A.Nahnah@theinternational.org.uk