BARRE — In the woods 70 miles west of Boston, Neil Carruthers liked to hike with his dog, Bear, whom he had trained to sniff out antlers shed by moose and deer.
On New Year’s Day, observing what would have been Neil’s 36th birthday, his parents brought Bear back to the wilderness their son loved, as they had for his birthday last year. And though they didn’t find antlers to add to Neil’s collection, on this memorial hike his parents at last carried with them the answer to why their son died mysteriously in August 2013.
Because she is a nurse, Rosanne Carruthers used technical words when passing along the state medical examiner’s explanation, which the family finally received in the fall, more than a year after Neil died. “When I put on Facebook what had happened,” she said, “a friend wrote and said, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand all of the medical terminology, but it just seems like he died of a broken heart.’ ”
Broken, perhaps, but in a medical way, rather than romantic. According to Rosanne, the medical examiner’s report said Neil died due to complications from a bicuspid aortic valve, which has only two leaflets instead of the normal three, and cardiomegaly, an enlarged heart.
Neil was only 34 when he died in his parents’ Stoneham home after tending to the needs of his 29-year-old wife, Tina, who was in the final stages of brain cancer. Stepping out of her room and into the hallway the morning of Aug. 11, 2013, he collapsed a few feet from his father, Bob, who was working in the next room. Roseanne performed CPR, and arriving EMTs tried to revive Neil, to no avail.
During Tina’s last months, Neil had taken a leave of absence from his work as a patient safety associate at Winchester Hospital, putting his life on hold to care for her.
He had a routine physical a few days before he died. The doctor found nothing troubling because only a cardiac evaluation would have detected the heart ailments. “And some people said, ‘Do you think the stress of what was going on contributed to this?’ When people say, ‘Oh, he died of a broken heart,’ I would say, no that doesn’t happen in healthy 34-year-old men,” Rosanne said. “It certainly could have been a contributing factor, but it’s something we will never know.”
Tina and Neil had moved in with his parents a few months earlier. She died 46 hours after he collapsed and their story captured attention around the world. The young, attractive couple’s romance was as unlikely as the close proximity of their deaths. Neil grew up in Stoneham and Tina was a Romanian immigrant, who had grown up downwind of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. They were both Seventh-day Adventists and met on a Christian Adventist website after she immigrated to the United States and was living in Georgia.
Neil was first drawn to collecting antlers when he found the remains of a deer while hiking as a boy in the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield. During their memorial hike on New Year’s Day, his parents recalled his youthful excitement when he told them about seeing the buck’s still impressive antlers.
Tall and strong in adulthood, Neil hiked often in Maine and central Massachusetts, in the region that includes the Quabbin Reservoir. Bob Carruthers sometimes accompanied his son on the antler expeditions, using Internet tools such as the satellite images on Google Maps to spot clearings in the woods that had been logged, where new growth might attract moose and deer. He carried map printouts on Thursday’s hike, and conceded that his son had achieved a superior mastery of finding antlers.
“Sometimes I still want to say to him, ‘Can you show me the good spots to look,’ ” Bob said as he and Roseanne walked, empty-handed, along a dirt road leading out of the woods.
For a long time, it seemed as if they might never get an official ruling about Neil’s death. Last year, the Globe reported that the state medical examiner’s office experienced significant backlogs after switching laboratories for toxicology testing, a move that saved about $600,000 a year.
“Neil’s physician called a couple of times and they wouldn’t give him the time of day,” Roseanne said. “He was very disappointed they wouldn’t give him any information about his patient.”
After the one-year anniversary of Neil’s death passed in August, his parents contacted a state representative from their area, who passed along their request for help to a state senator. With legislative intervention, a representative from the medical examiner’s office began calling with updates, Roseanne said, until the report arrived in the fall.
Even before the medical examiner’s ruling, she worried that Neil's death might have been due to cardiac ailments. “I immediately said it’s an aneurysm, it’s a clot, or it’s heart,” she recalled.
As a precaution, Roseanne and Bob had cardiac workups while awaiting the medical examiner’s ruling. It turned out they both had heart ailments, too.
When the state report detailed Neil’s cardiac history, his sister, Jill Hodson, scheduled a checkup, and learned earlier this week that her heart was fine. Because of the family history, however, her two children will be sure to seek cardiac evaluations when they’re adults.
While Jill’s report was a “huge relief,” Roseanne said she was thankful that the family “can at last put those pieces of the puzzle together.”
“There’s a lot of value knowing,” Bob said. “Information is important.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.