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How Did Lucille Ball Die? Details Revealed on New Docuseries

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How Did Lucille Ball Die? Details Revealed on New Docuseries

Thirty years after her death, new details are revealed about Lucille Ball's health and death.

Lucille Ball, the comedic genius and TV icon, was adored by millions of fans around the world. The co-creator and star of "I Love Lucy” was 77 when she died of a ruptured abdominal aorta.

Ball had undergone surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on April 18, 1989, to replace part of her aorta and aortic valve. She had recovered from the six and a half hour surgery to a point where she was eating and even walking around her hospital room, according to the L.A. Times. The hospital was flooded with thousands of get-well cards for Ball, the largest outpouring of love they’d ever received for a patient.

But Ball died a week later. Hospital spokesman Ronald Wise said the rupture occurred in a portion of the aorta, the main heart artery, far from where the operation was performed.

Now, 30 years after her death, a new documentary series is revealing some troubling new details about her life that may have contributed to her death.

"Autopsy: The Last Hours of…Lucille Ball" is a new docuseries by REELZ that reveals new details about her secret addictions, never discussed before. So how did Lucille Ball die? Here’s what we know about her life and health leading up to her death.

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1. She had a full life. 

When Ball was 17, she was on the verge of breaking into Hollywood. At the young age of 18, the comedienne had a small, uncredited role in the movie "Bulldog Drummond." In the late 1930s, Ball was making several films a year including "Room Service" and "Panama Lady." Then in 1951, her blockbuster television series "I Love Lucy" hit the air and ran for six successful years. Ball reunited with "I Love Lucy" co-star Vivian Vance for the aforementioned "Lucy Show." In 1962, Ball became the first woman to run a major television studio, Desilu Productions, which produced many popular television series, including "Mission: Impossible" and "Star Trek."

In 1940, Ball met Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz while filming the Rodgers and Hart stage hit "Too Many Girls." They got married soon after. In 1951, she and Arnaz created the sitcom "I Love Lucy," a series that became one of the most beloved programs in television history. Ball gave birth to their first child, Lucie Arnaz, followed by Desi Arnaz Jr. in 1953. On March 3, 1960, a day after Desi's 43rd birthday (and one day after the filming of Lucy and Desi's last episode together), Ball filed papers in Santa Monica Superior Court. According to the book, "Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel" by Bart Andrews (1976), she claimed married life with Desi was "a nightmare" and nothing at all as it appeared on "I Love Lucy." Ball and Arnaz divorced in May 1960, and she married comedian Gary Morton in 1961.

2. Ball enjoyed alcohol.

“So far, I’ve discovered something that had a major impact on her heart: alcohol,” said forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter on the show.

“Lucy liked her vices,” says Lee Tannen, Ball’s close friend. “We would make her a slushy, which sounded like it didn’t have booze, but it did have triple sec and tequila It was really a frozen margarita.”

Because alcohol can increase blood pressure, it can also cause heart problems.

“It’s clear from her death certificate that Lucille did have high blood pressure,” said Hunter. “Could years of abuse have damaged her heart?”

Psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos says she does not believe alcohol was a problem for the actress. 

“I think the appeal of alcohol wouldn’t have been there. This isn’t something appealing because it’s about losing control, it’s about letting go. I think it speaks to her need to ensure that she’s in the driver’s seat when it comes, not just to her career, but to her life as well,” said Papadopoulos. 

“If alcohol was not a major part of Lucille’s life, there must’ve been another reason for the hypertension, or high blood pressure mentioned in her death certificate. I can see something else from personal reports that seems bizarre: was Lucille also inhaling a substance often associated with sex?” said Hunter.

3. Ball was taking amyl nitrite.

"Autopsy: The Last Hours of…Lucille Ball" investigates Ball’s history of cardiac trouble and the cause of her death. 

“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,” Dr. Hunter said in a preview of the series. According to Dr. Hunter, Ball was taking amyl nitrite — which goes by the name Poppers on the street and is a popular sex aide.

“The street name for amyl nitrite is poppers. Poppers are a strong-smelling inhalant often associated with sex,” said Dr. Hunter in a preview for the episode airing Sunday. And while that’s common knowledge among literally every homosexual, the good doctor wants you to take a whiff of this factoid: “But it’s original purpose was as a prescription drug to treat pain in the chest.”

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

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4. Why investigate now?

Dr. Hunter’s investigation revealed she had some health issues prior to her death. 

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

According to Dr. Hunter, cystic medial necrosis was a contributing cause to Ball’s death. 

“Cystic medial necrosis is the breakdown of muscle, collagen, and elastin in the large blood vessels throughout the body. When they lose this elasticity and support, it makes them more liable to tear and rupture,” Hunter explained. "I want to investigate if there were any previously unknown causes of her heart problems."

5. Did Ball have a mysterious illness?

The doctor also seems to think that a "mystery illness" when the Hollywood star was only 17 years old played a part in the deterioration of her health later in life.

“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?” Hunter asked.

"Autopsy: The Last Hours of...Lucille Ball" premieres Sunday, March 10 at 8 pm ET on Reelz.

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Maria Lianos-Carbone is author of "Oh Baby! A Mom's Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year" and publisher of amotherworld.com.