Bruce Lee was the most influential martial artist of the 20th century. In the 1970’s, his fame as a movie star and martial arts instructor sparked North American interest in Asian martial arts. At age 32, he died suddenly from massive swelling of his brain, most likely caused by a rare reaction to aspirin.
A Born Leader
He was born in Chinatown, San Francisco, the son of Lee Hoi-chuen, a leading Chinese opera and film actor and Grace Ho, a Chinese-Caucasian daughter of extremely wealthy Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists. Bruce’s family returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old and he was raised there. His father arranged for him to get minor parts in movies and he had roles in 20 films by the time he was eighteen.
He was a born leader and used his talents to become a leader of a street gang. After he came home from school one day with wounds from a fight, his father began to teach him martial arts and then enrolled him in formal training for that sport. All this did was encourage him to get into more street fights with rival gangs. When he was 18, he beat up the son of a prominent gang leader and word got out of a contract to kill him. Fearing for Bruce’s life, his father sent him to the safety of the United States to live with his older sister, Agnes Lee, in San Francisco.
In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington to major in drama. There he met his future wife Linda Emery, and they were married in August 1964. They had two children, Brandon and Shannon, both of whom became actors. Lee dropped out of college in the spring of 1964 and moved to Oakland to open a martial arts studio with James Yimm Lee.
He was a star of the television series “The Green Hornet” in 1966 and 1967. However, he was not able to get movie jobs in Hollywood, so he left Los Angeles for Hong Kong in the summer of 1971. There he quickly became a major star in “Fists of Fury,” followed by an even more popular film, “The Chinese Connection”. In 1972, he founded a company to make his own film, “Return of the Dragon”.
Bruce ran virtually every day, usually in the late afternoon, and did a lot of stretching. Whenever he watched television he would exercise and stretch. He had almost no fat in his body and was always in top shape. He also became good enough at table tennis to compete successfully with some of the best players in his area.
Health Food Obsession
Several times a day he would drink special protein mixes or vegetable cocktails. His drinks contained commercial protein powders, powdered milk, eggs with their shells, vegetable oils, peanut flour and bananas. He juiced carrots, celery and apples regularly. He also took a lot of vitamin and mineral pills. No good research supports any of these “health food” habits, but they worked for him. His one health food habit that is supported by solid research is that he restricted bread and other foods made from refined flour.
A Warning Event and Sudden Death
On May 10, 1973, he suffered headaches followed by a seizure and then fell on the floor while working on the movie “Enter the Dragon”. He was rushed to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital where doctors diagnosed that he had massive swelling of his brain. This is dangerous because the brain is enclosed in a tight skull that cannot expand. The swollen expanding brain is crushed in a tight space, the center of the brain that causes a person to breathe is damaged, and the person stops breathing and dies.
A very competent physician saved his life by immediately giving him intravenous mannitol. This drug increases the concentration of sugar in the bloodstream to shrink the brain by drawing fluid from the brain into the bloodstream. The mannitol also acts on the kidneys to draw the extra fluid out of the body and into the urine. Unfortunately, his doctor failed to warn him that aspirin was a probable cause of the swelling, and that he should never again take anything containing aspirin. I knew about aspirin causing brain swelling when I was in training in the late 1950s, so this was not new information.
On July 20, 1973, while reviewing a movie script at the home of Betty Ting Pei, a Taiwanese actress, he complained of a headache and was given a painkiller called Equagesic, which contained aspirin and meprobamate, a muscle relaxant. At 7:30 pm, he went to sleep and he could not be awakened. A doctor was called and also could not wake him up. The doctor called an ambulance, but Lee was dead before he reached the hospital. He had no marks of trauma on his body.
The autopsy showed that his brain had swollen by more than 13 percent. That means that his expanded brain was crushed by his non-expanding skull. Every tissue in his body was tested for drugs and the only drugs that were found were aspirin and meprobamate from the Equagesic and insignificant amounts of cannabis from marijuana.. Donald Teare, a forensic scientist recommended by Scotland Yard, concluded that his death was caused by brain swelling caused by compounds present in Equagesic. Aspirin can cause severe brain swelling, coma, confusion and seizures.
Why Aspirin Can Cause Brain Swelling
When you cut yourself, the damaged cells release chemicals called prostaglandins that sensitize neurons that carry pain signals to the brain. Aspirin reduces pain by blocking the COX-2 enzymes that make the prostaglandins that send the pain messages to your brain. These prostaglandins also help to prevent swelling, so aspirin can have a side effect of blocking the blocker of swelling, to cause swelling of any tissue in the body including the brain. Aspirin side effects include:
• swelling in the skin to cause hives,
• swelling in the nose to cause nasal polyps,
• swelling in the bronchial tubes to cause asthma,
• swelling in the intestines to cause belly pain, and
• swelling in the brain, as in Reye’s syndrome
Fortunately these reactions are rare.
In 1988, a scientist discovered that a condition called Reye’s syndrome usually occurred after taking aspirin (Arch. Dis. Child, 1988; 63 (7): 857–66 ). This disease occurs when a person, almost always a child, is infected with a virus such as those that cause flu or chicken pox, and then takes an aspirin. The aspirin damages the mitochondria, principally in the liver and brain. The liver is unable to do its usual job of clearing toxins from the body, blood ammonia levels rise, and the brain starts to swell. Fifty percent of people who suffer this syndrome die from a swelling of their brains. Those who survive can suffer permanent brain damage.
Special thanks to Robert Stoll of Eastpointe, MI, for providing information on Bruce Lee.
November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973)