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Eugene O'Neill's Guilt and Death

Eugene O'Neill, one of America's greatest playwrights, wrote about people who went wrong and asked for forgiveness. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (April 13, 2000) gives O'Neill the forgiveness that he never requested in his own life time.

HE DID NOT DIE OF ALCOHOLIC BRAIN DAMAGE. O'Neill died at age 65 of brain damage that he incorrectly thought was caused by his heavy drinking.

In his youth, he often drank himself into a drunken stupor. He kept on drinking because each time he stopped, he suffered from delirium tremens, a condition that alcoholics commonly suffer when they try to stop drinking after binging. He would develop terrible head and belly pain, vomit, shake all over, break out in a cold sweat, and often feel so sick that he thought that he was going to die.

HE GOT THE MESSAGE: At age 40, after binging and withdrawing for many years and showing complete disdain for warnings that he was killing himself, his doctor warned him that continuing to drink would leave him impotent and that he would lose his ability to write.

This made him realize that he was about to lose his magnificent gift that was also the most important activity of his life. After that, he drank rarely and for the last eight years of his life, he did not drink at all. In spite of complete withdrawal from alcohol, he continued to lose coordination and eventually was unable to write well enough to even read what he had written. He could not hold a glass of water without spilling it on himself. He was so shaky that he could not walk and he lost his ability to speak. In 1953, at age 65, he choked on his food and died of pneumonia in a rented hotel room.

MISPLACED GUILT: Right to the end, he believed that he had killed himself with his drinking. In the year 2000, 48 years after O'Neill’s death, he was exonerated by Dr. Bruce Price, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Price wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he had examined slides of O'Neill’s brain and determined that O'Neill died of LATE-ONSET CEREBELLAR ATROPHY, a disorder that has no known cause, but certainly is not caused by drinking.

TWO LESSONS: This story teaches you two lessons. First, Eugene O'Neill died of a condition that was not caused by drinking, so he died with plenty of guilt that he did not deserve. The second lesson is that the majority of diagnoses that you may get from a neurologist have fancy names, but no known cause and virtually never any effective treatment. The conditions are often named after the doctors who first described them: Nieman Pick disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Dandy- Walker syndrome, Friedreich's ataxia, Gaucher's disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome, Huntington's disease, Prader-Willi syndrome, Wilson's disease and so forth. Medical students go through neurology classes and learn fancy names for obscure types of nerve damage. It may take years for them to learn that knowing a fancy name for their condition does not help the patient.

EUGENE O'NEILL DIED OF late-onset cerebellar degeneration in 1953 because nobody could help him. Now, 60 years later, neurologists know that they would not be able to help him today.

March 17th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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