How Bacterial Pneumonia Can Spread - And Kill

Posted: May 18, 1990

Massive bacterial infections, such as the kind that killed Muppet master Jim Henson, are best treated with antibiotics and speed.

But Henson evidently had passed the "point of no return" by the time he sought treatment, according to a professor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). Henson died Wednesday of a quick-spreading bacterial pneumonia.

Robert Austrian, professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Research Medicine at HUP, said yesterday that the bacteria, streptococcus, ''can kill a patient rather quickly. It causes overwhelming toxemia that attacks the entire system."

Sometimes, he said, the damage cannot be reversed and the patient dies ''cured," meaning that antibiotics may have killed the bacteria but not before the disease has caused so much damage that the patient cannot recover.

Austrian said the strain of streptococcus that killed Henson is the same that flourished during the influenza epidemic of 1918. The disease killed 20 million people worldwide, including 548,000 in the United States.

Austrian said that sort of infection often followed an influenza attack, and Henson, 53, was known to have had influenza-like symptoms in the days before his death.

Specifically, Henson died of pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs caused by streptococcus. Pneumonia strikes two million Americans each year and causes between 40,000 and 70,000 deaths annually, according to the American Public Health Association. Many of its victims are very young, very old or suffering

from other ailments.

With streptococcus, Austrian said, delay can make all the difference in the patient's chances of recovery.

"There is a point of no return," he said, "and apparently Mr. Henson had passed it."

Henson was ill while visiting family in North Carolina last weekend. Family members yesterday denied reports that Henson was examined by a doctor there.

Henson's mother, Barbara Henson, said Henson saw a cousin who is a doctor, but the cousin did not examine him. The cousin, whom she did not identify by name, "merely picked him up at a motel and brought him to my house for lunch," Barbara Henson said. "Nobody knew Jim was that ill. We feel terrible."

The cousin advised Henson to see a physician when he returned to New York, she said.

His symptoms became worse after his return to New York on Monday. By the time Henson was brought to the hospital emergency room at 4:58 a.m. Tuesday, he was in shock. Henson died at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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