Julie Powell’s Death of “Cardiac Arrest”

Robin Schoenthaler, MD
3 min readNov 2, 2022

“Cardiac arrest” is an action; not a diagnosis; her death is a mystery

The wonderfully interesting Julie Powell — author of Julia and Julie: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen — died suddenly and unexpectedly at her home last week. In every report thus far, her death is described as a result of “cardiac arrest.”

This death is terrible and tragic and my heart goes out to her bereaved family.

But this characterization of her death as due to “cardiac arrest” really bothers me. “Cardiac arrest” just means her “heart stopped.” We all know if your heart stops and stays stopped you will die. But WHY her “heart stopped” can’t be answered without an autopsy.

It is possible she may have had a giant blood clot go to her lungs for no clear-cut reason.

Or she may have had a brain aneurysm.

Or she may have had a blood vessel erupt somewhere else in her body.

Or who knows? Maybe it has something to do with the Covid she had six weeks ago. We don’t know and can’t know.

So far, there’s no established link between sudden death and Covid although it’s the subject of a lot of research. There’s been a lot of conjecture and a lot of people have a lot of anecdotes, but so far there’s no good science showing a link. We might find a link in the future with longer follow-up, but we don’t yet have clear-cut evidence that Covid causes sudden death with cardiac arrest, lung clots, brain aneurysms, strokes, or anything else.

The bottom line is absolutely nobody knows for sure why her “heart stopped.”

These kinds of tragedies happen to young people every day; we see it all the time in ERs and ICUs. In my own life I myself have known half a dozen people who died exactly this way — young people, no warning, all of a sudden.

One person was found at her desk at her church job with her hands folded in prayer (brain aneurysm); one died in the bathroom (blood clot to the lungs); one heart-breaking death happened in a young man in his 20s playing his guitar (heart damage leading to heart attack), etc., etc.

Those deaths were equally tragic and terrible and also due to “cardiac arrest,” but at least we…

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Robin Schoenthaler, MD

Covid-Translator. Cancer doc: ~Three decades at MGH. Writer and storyteller: Moth Grand Slam Champion. Mom. www.DrRobin.org, @robinshome, robinshome2@gmail.com