In the early Spring of 1975, Kathleen O’Rourke’s doctor delivered the wonderful news that she and her husband Michael had waited for several weeks to hear: they were going to have their second child. Overjoyed, they announced their pregnancy to family and friends, and with all of the accompanying anxiety, excitement, and anticipation of the arrival of another O’Rourke, they started planning for the birth that was to be expected at the end of that year. But in the weeks that followed, Kathleen, who had already gone through a normal pregnancy with her first child, began to feel that something was not quite right about this one. She voiced her concerns to her doctor, who tried reassuring the young couple, but their happiness became heartbreak when Kathleen suddenly became ill and was rushed to the hospital, where an examination confirmed their worst fears; she had suffered a miscarriage. It was a terrible shock for their small household, especially for three-year-old Tammy O’Rourke, who couldn’t quite understand why she was not going to have a new baby brother or sister that year. The O’Rourke’s family and closest friends consoled and supported the grieving couple as they coped with their loss, and they resolved to get on with their lives.
During the month that followed, Kathleen recovered emotionally somewhat but continued to feel all the normal symptoms, and still show some signs, of being pregnant. When she told her doctor, he assured her that the condition would pass but as a precaution, suggested that she have a procedure to remedy what might be the cause. Kathleen’s maternal instincts told her otherwise though, and she declined to have anything done and instead, waited. Still feeling the same several weeks after her last visit, she returned to her doctor’s office insisting that she was carrying a child and asked for another examination to be sure. To the surprise and delight of everyone, it showed that she was indeed still pregnant, though when they found out how and why, the discovery itself was not without some sadness. Kathleen had actually conceived twins, a boy and a girl, and it was the boy who had been miscarried. Though the O’Rourke’s grief was renewed with this knowledge, they understood that because of the loss of the boy, the girl had survived and so everyone agreed that this was nothing short of a miracle. That miracle was finally realized when, two days after Christmas 1975, in San Diego, California, Heather Michele O’Rourke was born.
Four days later, the O’Rourke family and friends gathered to greet the 1976 Bicentennial New Year, and to celebrate the homecoming of Baby Heather; the newest addition to the O’Rourke family. Heather was a blessing for more than just those closest to her, though. This special baby, who almost never was, would be destined for much more than just an ordinary life; she would eventually charm her way into the minds and hearts of people throughout the world, and with the words “they’re here”, and the eerie image of her tiny silhouette and little hands upon a television screen, would become an indelible memory to an entire generation of horror movie fans.
Heather spent much of her early life growing up east of San Diego in Santee, a small town with a pioneer history. With plenty of relatives living close-by, the O’Rourkes and their extended family enjoyed a typical and comfortable suburban existence. Mr. O’Rourke was a carpenter by trade, and Mrs. O’Rourke occasionally worked part-time in order to help make ends meet. Their small house was on a quiet street located just two blocks away from Tammy’s elementary school and also close to playgrounds and parks where, on weekends, the O’Rourkes and their family, or friends, would often go to socialize, to watch or play sports, or to barbeque while the kids had fun just being kids. But in addition to having regular fun, the two O’Rourke sisters also found ways to express themselves artistically.
Shortly before Heather was born, her mother Kathleen had decided to work for a few hours a day but to be able to do that, she first needed to find someone to take care of Heather’s older sister Tammy who, at that time, was only three. Tammy was still a bit too young for pre-school (nor did she particularly like that idea) and day-care would have been an additional expense, so the answer was: dance class. She started with tap lessons, and liked it so much that after a short time began performing in little recitals with her class. After Heather was born, Tammy continued with classes and performances until her teacher took her mother aside one day and said that she was good enough to consider her dancing not just a hobby, but a serious talent that could be developed. Tammy received this praise with enthusiasm and began dancing in small productions and entering local talent shows, often coming home with top honors. Since Heather was in the habit of imitating her older sister, it was natural to expect that she would follow in her footsteps and so when she was barely old enough, Heather began showcasing her own talents with some onstage singing and dancing. Shortly after Heather turned three, she herself won a local “Little Miss” pageant as well. Sometimes, the girls even performed onstage together. In one early collaboration, a genuine “sister act”, Tammy did a dance routine while Heather sang. Their family was proud of their talents and the girls even became a little famous locally, but to Tammy and Heather, it was all a normal everyday thing and they were really just a couple of kids having a lot of fun.
Further encouraged by her dance instructor, Tammy finally decided that she wanted to break out of the local talent scene and try to get some serious dancing parts in bigger productions. To be able to do this though, they would have to look outside of San Diego and so she and her mother (with Heather in tow) began to make regular trips to the Los Angeles area for auditions and tryouts. They found an agent to represent Tammy and with perseverance, succeeded in getting some acting spots in television commercials but dancing always remained her focus. Her big break came when she auditioned for “The Don Crichton Dancers”, a dance troupe consisting of 5 boys and 5 girls that was scheduled to appear regularly on CBS’s “The Tim Conway Show”. The audition lasted practically all day as more than 350 kids danced their hearts out but when the dust settled, only ten of them were left standing. One of those ten, was Tammy. The show premiered in March 1980 and lasted until September 1981, and the experience and the exposure on national television helped boost Tammy’s fledgling career as a dancer. Adding “The Tim Conway Show” to her growing list of credits, within two years of her break into professional entertainment, she would be featured as a dancer in two big screen musical productions: MGM’s “Pennies from Heaven” and Columbia Pictures’ “Annie”.
When MGM started the “Pennies from Heaven” production in the summer of 1980, rehearsing and filming was several days a week beginning early in the morning and often lasting all day long. In addition to that, Tammy was being tutored a few hours a day to keep up with her schoolwork. Even though this was a mandatory requirement to comply with the existing labour laws for child actors, it only added to her already grueling schedule that included commuting with her mother and Heather from Santee to the MGM Studios in Culver City on an almost daily basis. At the end of each day, Tammy and Heather were often so exhausted that they fell asleep during the more-than-two-hour drive home. Eventually, they began staying in L.A. and Anaheim during the week and going home to Santee on the weekends to be with their father, or sometimes he came up to visit them on his days off. This living arrangement made it easier for Tammy to fulfill her dance role, but it also meant giving up certain things such as spending time with family and school friends from Santee. It was not permanent though, or at least was not originally intended to be, but that was all to change shortly thereafter because it was during this period, while Tammy was filming “Pennies from Heaven”, that Heather’s official “discovery” occurred.
Since Heather was still too young for school, she always accompanied her mother to Tammy’s rehearsals and filming, and it did not take long before Mrs. O’Rourke noticed that Heather too, seemed interested in acting. The agent handling Tammy’s career recognized this as well and offered to represent Heather, and so soon enough, the photogenic 4-year-old starting getting some exposure. Heather already had a small list of non-acting credits to her name. She had appeared in ads and on packaging for Mattel toys including one of the “Barbie” dolls, but with an agent who represented actors, now she would be auditioning for acting roles, in addition to appearing in restaurant commercials for McDonald’s and later, Long John Silver’s. By age five, barely after starting kindergarten, she would be making her first TV show appearance on ABC’s “Fantasy Island”.
Despite this impressive resume, Heather remained largely undiscovered until director Steven Spielberg happened upon her by chance. Spielberg, who was just finishing up “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, was preparing to film “ET” but also had another film project in the works. He had not yet found a suitable actress to play a key role in the movie though and as the project took shape, began running out of time. Drew Barrymore had auditioned, but Spielberg felt she wasn’t quite right for that particular movie (he gave her a part in “ET” instead though, which “launched” her career) and so he kept on looking.
When the “Pennies from Heaven” production would break at noon everyday, Tammy would join Heather and their mother for lunch in the legendary MGM Studios Commissary which, at mealtimes, was often packed with any number of directors, actors, and hundreds of stage personnel, all of them hungry. Seating in the commissary dining room was sometimes scarce so upon finding an unoccupied table, it was Heather’s job to sit there and save it while Tammy and her mother would go and get their lunch. On this particular day, Heather was sitting by herself waiting, as usual, for her mother and Tammy to return. She was already accustomed to the hustle-and-bustle of these surroundings and so was not worried when a bearded and bespectacled man approached her table. He introduced himself as “Steven”, asked her what her name was, and if he could talk to her. Heather answered with surprising frankness for a four-year-old when she informed him that she was “not allowed to talk to strangers” and that she was waiting for her mother and sister to return with their lunch. Amused and intrigued by her precociousness, the man then asked if he could he sit and wait with her. Heather agreed, and as promised, did not talk to him. Shortly thereafter, Tammy and their mother returned,and they were quite surprised to find a man sitting with Heather. At first, they didn’t recognize him but when he introduced himself as Steven Spielberg to them, they became quite flustered. Heather however, who wasn’t paying particular attention to what was being said, was more interested in eating her lunch. They had heard of Spielberg and knew that he was a film director, and so they thought that he just happened to be passing-by, until he told them that he was casting a little girl for a movie that he was making. He then asked Heather if she had ever made a movie. Still a bit shy in front of the “stranger”, Heather just looked at her mother, who answered for her. Spielberg continued to chat with Mrs. O’Rourke and Tammy briefly, with an occasional word to Heather, but after finding out more about Heather’s age and lack of experience, he said that he was really looking for someone a bit older. He thanked them, said goodbye to Heather (who ignored him and continued eating her lunch) and left.
Next day, again at lunch, Spielberg was back at their table and this time he sat and talked for a little while. It seemed that he wanted to get to know Heather better and that maybe she might be right for the part after all. The only unanswered questions were, could she act, and more importantly, could she scream convincingly? He left his card, and they arranged an interview and a “scream test”. At the interview, he told Heather that it was a scary movie and that she would have to pretend to act scared and scream a lot even though there was nothing really there to scare her. Heather seemed confident about being able to do this and so together, they relayed back and forth, Spielberg giving lines and direction, and Heather following along. Finally, he cued her for a screaming demonstration. Heather responded appropriately with a loud and piercing scream. Not quite satisfied, Spielberg asked her to scream again, but louder and longer this time. Heather screamed until the windows rattled. Still not convinced, he asked her to scream again, and again, and again, until finally, Heather’s patience (which was unusual for a 4-year-old to have) began to run out and she informed him (politely) that she was finished screaming and that she would like to go home. Spielberg realized that this was Heather’s way of telling him that the interview was over and so he called in her mother. A very tired and hoarse Heather went home that night not really caring if she got the part, but Spielberg already knew that he had found his leading (little) lady because a 4-year-old actress who could sit still for an hour, take direction, and actually read a script, was worth her weight in gold. The next day he offered the role to her. On her mother’s advice, Heather accepted and was cast in the movie. The movie was “Poltergeist”.
In the Spring of 1981 when filming on “Poltergeist” started, Heather had just turned five a few months earlier and had a few commercials and “Fantasy Island” to her acting credit, but her experiences did not include doing anything that actually scared her. For this reason, she had a little difficulty remaining calm during some of the sequences involving special effects. One scene in particular was very physically demanding and could not be performed convincingly with a stunt double. This was the famous “closet-sucking scene” for which they used a special “moveable” room. With this setup, they could tilt the entire room and camera and with fans blowing, make things look like they were being sucked into the closet by a “spectral vacuum cleaner” when in reality, objects were sliding by gravity towards the low end of the room. With the room tilted on its side, objects would be literally “falling” into the closet and finally Heather herself, appearing to be holding horizontally onto the headboard of her bed (but actually vertically suspended by a cable on the ceiling about 30 ft. above the floor) would be raised into the closet, also appearing to be sucked in. The shot was painstakingly setup by Spielberg himself and had all the promise of being a spectacular effect on film.
But the unnatural movement of the bedroom-set startled Heather and the wire-harness was very uncomfortable, not to mention the huge special effects fans, which constantly blew air in her face and ears for long periods of time, wearing away at her patience. Hours later while hanging high in the air during the shoot, Heather finally had enough and began to cry, and Spielberg at once recognized that she was genuinely afraid. He ordered filming to stop while he comforted her and finally reassured her by deciding, on-the-spot, that she would not have to perform that scene again. To complete it, they used a stunt child double with an obvious and poorly-fitted wig. Aside from that scene and a few others that really frightened her, Heather had great fun making her “scary movie” both on and off the set. She quickly won the respect, admiration, and especially the affection of the entire cast and crew, and, as an added consolation for her suffering, Heather was also allowed to take home the two goldfish that had been used for one of her less scary scenes. When Poltergeist was released in June of 1982, movie audiences and die-hard Spielberg fans alike were not disappointed, but its box office draw was soon eclipsed by Spielberg’s other summer film release, the kiddie oriented “E.T.”. Nonetheless, Heather had gotten the cinematic exposure that her young career needed and it soon became obvious that she had attracted the attention of casting agents for television.
Heather’s new-found success would come at a price though, and during the filming of “Poltergeist”, at the very beginning stages of her career, the lives of her, and her sister and mother changed practically overnight and were not completely without their share of stress and unhappiness. Early on, when they were still making their debut on the local talent circuit, their father was tolerant and even supportive of what they were doing since their activities did not dominate or disrupt family life, but as Tammy started filming “Annie” and Heather started filming “Poltergeist” at about the same time, it became apparent that even though he was proud of them, he did not want to “share his family” that much. With the filming going on, his family (Tammy, Heather, and their mother) was away from home almost 5-days out of a week. The final outcome was that their parents separated, and later divorced, and the girls and their mother permanently relocated to the L.A. area. Since they had already been staying there most of the week, the physical transition between old home life and new was eased somewhat, and so Tammy and Heather coped with the emotional stress by getting on with their lives and engrossing themselves in their acting. That summer, they finished filming their movies and by the Fall of 1981, their mother starting working again, the girls started at new schools, and the acting and auditioning for new parts continued. They settled in Anaheim, literally next door to Disneyland. This was not only convenient, but also proved to be providential because two years later Heather’s next big role was playing herself in a made-for-TV special entitled: “Believe You Can…And You Can!” The story revolved around Heather at Disneyland and would be filmed entirely on location. Heather was delighted that she would be able to step out of the door of their mobile home and walk to the set at Disneyland a few blocks away.
After the success of “Poltergeist”, with her own agent and manager, Heather began to appear regularly on television, first landing a recurring role on “Happy Days” in the Fall of 1982. After that series ended, Heather continued to audition and receive offers and over the course of the next five years she was a familiar face on television. She made more toy commercials, several “made-for-TV” movies/specials such as “Massarati and the Brain”, “Believe You Can, And You Can”, and “Surviving: A Family in Crisis”, and had guest appearances on a string of the most popular primetime and syndicated shows from the 1980’s such as “CHiPs”, “Webster”, “Matt Houston”, “Finder of Lost Loves”, “Our House”, “The New Leave It To Beaver”, the short-lived series “Rocky Road”, and lastly, “Here to Stay”, an unsold television pilot. Other non-acting TV appearances included: an afternoon on the 1986 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon where she took phone pledges as part of a panel of child actors, two stints as a celebrity judge on a special children’s edition of the popular amateur talent show called “Puttin’ On The Hits”, and as a guest on shows including “The Merv Griffin Show”, and various “AM” talk shows and “PM” entertainment shows. In between TV appearances she would go on to film “Poltergeist II” and ultimately “Poltergeist III”, reprising her now famous character “Carol Anne” in both films.
The following three years that Heather, Tammy, and their mother Kathy lived in Anaheim would be a bit of struggle for them and yet, the girls had adapted remarkably well to their new lives and surroundings and were very happy. Heather would continue to remain busy with her many guest spots on television shows and commercials and by the end of 1983, Tammy, who was now 12, had started junior high school and worked only occasionally. After a few more featured appearances in some of Heather’s shows, Tammy would retire from acting for good. In 1984, their mother Kathy met and married a part-time truck-driver named Jim Peele who lived in the same mobile home park. Later, that same year, the new family decided to leave Anaheim and move to the city of Big Bear Lake, located high in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles.
After Heather moved to Big Bear, she continued to work steadily but her acting always revolved around her home life. Aside from her TV and movie roles, she was, at heart, a regular kid who loved school, performed household chores, quarreled with her sister, and lived for shopping. During her three-year tenure as a student at Big Bear Elementary School, Heather was elected President of her 5th grade class (a position that she considered a great honor), took lessons in flute, struggled with math, and was an avid reader of “Nancy Drew” mysteries and love stories. But, like any other young girl her age she most of all, loved the occasional “all-day” shopping excursion, which at times, was exhausting for her mother and sister Tammy. This was mainly because of Heather’s keen eye for 80’s fashions that she insisted be properly coordinated, and to her, this meant that all of her outfits had to have matching accessories such as earrings, watches, shoes and purses.
When they weren’t acting, Heather and Tammy also kept busy with plenty of other hobbies as well. They, along with their mother and stepfather, enjoyed outdoor activities too and as a family, would ski together in winter, and in summer go on long bicycle rides through the picturesque areas that surrounded their home. Heather even had a daring side to her personality: she had an ATC (a three-wheeled all-terrain-cycle) that her stepfather got her while working at the local Honda dealer and so, clad in an extra-small sized helmet and size 1 riding boots, she could often be seen “rumbling” (cautiously) around the trails and back roads of Big Bear.
But Heather was mostly a “homebody” and preferred her quieter hobbies like reading, writing in her journals, collecting “Cabbage Patch” and other dolls, sewing, and baking (and eating) cakes, pies, and other sweets with her mother. It was both Heather and Tammy’s love of sweets (especially chocolate) that gave them the idea to share their delicious obsession with other Big Bear residents by becoming entrepreneurs for a while. They started a candy selling business in front of the Honda dealership where their stepfather was employed. “See’s” candies, which were not normally available in Big Bear, were the featured sale item as well as hot chocolate and a few other goodies. Naturally, some of their tasty inventory found its way into their own stomachs and so after a while they figured out that their net profit would actually increase if they went out-of-business. They eventually “closed-up shop” for good and Heather decided to stick with acting. This proved to be a wise choice because MGM studios had big plans for her future.
Banking on the success of “Poltergeist” in 1982, MGM immediately called for a sequel but the producers and directors of the original were either unwilling or unable to do it. MGM was persistent though, and eventually offered the writing and production of “Poltergeist II” to Steven Spielberg’s co-writers from the first film. They immediately set to the task of writing the screenplay and by the spring of 1983 (not quite a year since the release of the first “Poltergeist”) had completed it. In anticipation, MGM announced their plans in 1984 to film “Poltergeist II” and so with the rumour of the sequel already making its rounds, and with a completed screenplay and script, all that the producers needed was a director (or so they thought). They had also overlooked one other important detail: No one had yet contacted any of the original cast most of whom by then, had thriving careers and other commitments, but with a larger production budget than the first film, they were able to avoid disaster by offering generous financial compensation. This not only saved them costly embarrassment, but it also greatly increased the chances of the sequel’s success. With the actors now secure, they found their director in Brian Gibson, an Englishman who had directed many projects for British film and television but was a relative newcomer to the U.S. film industry.
Ever since completing the first “Poltergeist”, Heather had marveled about its success to her agent and so was not totally taken by surprise when he contacted her about reprising her role in a sequel so soon after the original. The response of audiences to her presence in the first film was so profound that the writers quickly realized she should be the focal point of the second movie as well. Like her co-stars, Heather’s career had also gained momentum after her debut in “Poltergeist” and so by the time that she signed on for “Poltergeist II” and the film went into pre-production, she had spent three years on prime time TV with regular series and TV movies to her credit. Heather had come a long way since her first acting appearance at four. She was now nine, and with her age had come experience, wisdom, and of course acting ability.
“Poltergeist II” began production in the summer of 1985 and Heather was very excited to be working with her onscreen family again but filming with director Brian Gibson soon became an arduous task as the production was plagued with delays and other strange occurrences. Heather also did not particularly care for the movie itself personally, but for her this was work and so she completed the role with her usual dedication and professionalism, which was something rarely seen in a nine-year-old actor. Filming was eventually completed behind schedule in late 1985 and after rushed post-production, the movie premiered in May of the following year. “Poltergeist II”, although not as successful as the first, did reasonably well at the box-office nonetheless. Even so, as with the original “Poltergeist”, Heather’s career gained additional momentum and as more roles and experience accumulated on her resume, she now began to get ideas about where else she wanted to apply her talents and interests. In addition to her acting, Heather had also developed an intuitive sense of filmmaking and so it was no surprise when she expressed an interest in directing. This was mainly sparked by her love of acting, but her experiences with a variety of media types and her admiration of Sylvester Stallone and Michael Landon, both of whom were long time successful actors turned directors, were further inspiration.
Along with Heather’s growing success came a growing salary and so with a newly formed corporation in her name and with her earnings from “Poltergeist II” and her latest TV appearances, she and her family picked out a new house in Big Bear with the intention of making it their permanent home. By the end of 1986 though, that was all to change when once again, MGM proved how important Heather was to them by announcing their plans for a third installment in the “Poltergeist” series. In a strange and yet consistent coincidence, MGM, as with the original “Poltergeist”, was once again unable to entice the writer/producer/director team of “Poltergeist II” to do another sequel that soon, and so again scrambled to find someone to take the helm for the third film. The “someone” turned out to be Gary Sherman, a veteran writer and director known for a few low-budget movies in the shocker genre. With the introduction of Sherman also came a source of fresh creativity and so the traditional “Poltergeist” formula that called for a setting that was “homely, rustic, and suburban”, was replaced with one that was “slick, modern, and metropolitan”. Sherman chose the “John Hancock Center”, a skyscraper in his hometown of Chicago, for his version of the “ghost” story.
Naturally, Heather was the first actor to be contacted for “Poltergeist III” because by now, MGM knew fully well that any future successes depended upon her. She was thrilled to be doing a movie again so soon but the surprising disappointment for her was that due to a small production budget, only one of her original co-stars would appear in the movie with her. In addition to not working with any other familiar faces, “Poltergeist III” was to take place in Chicago which meant that most of it would be filmed there as well, and for the first time in her life, Heather would be far away from home for many months. She would never be alone though. Her mother was her constant companion and, Heather declared, “her best friend”, but she also made friends on the set quickly and would eventually become very dear to the cast and crew, especially director Gary Sherman. Heather bubbled with enthusiasm about this film and to the amusement of her co-stars became an active participant in technical and other discussions at script readings and frequently offered her professional opinion and advice. Though neither of the actor/directors whom she admired went to film school themselves, Heather already had a plan to attend either USC or the rival UCLA to study directing and so working on this production would present a good opportunity for her to start developing her “director” skills.
Shortly before pre-production on “Poltergeist III” was to start, Heather began to show signs and symptoms of a kind of illness never before seen by her mother. She had already been ill for a while with what they thought was probably the flu. The local doctor in Big Bear said that it was winter, they lived in the mountains, it was, after all, cold and flu season, and Heather’s symptoms seemed to be “flu-like”. But the illness lingered and as pre-production for “Poltergeist III” approached, Heather’s mother and even her agent and manager were worried that she was still ill. When Heather returned home from school one afternoon with swelling in her lower legs and feet, her mother decided that this was not something to be taken lightly and so drove Heather all the way to San Diego for an examination by her usual doctors. The strange symptoms were also attributed to flu and Heather was prescribed the standard treatment. They returned home and her mother was told to monitor her condition and to bring her back if needed. She did not improve and so her mother took her to San Diego again. This time, doctors thought it possible that Heather was having some kind of reaction to an insect or spider bite. But her mother was not convinced and again returned to San Diego when Heather’s symptoms persisted despite taking the prescribed medications. They admitted her to the hospital this time and did a complete examination. Laboratory tests soon revealed what was causing her illness: Heather’s intestinal tract had become infected with a microorganism called “Giardia lamblia,” which was common in mountain and other wilderness areas and usually contracted by drinking from an untreated water source. The diagnosis however, puzzled doctors, health officials, and Heather’s parents because neither her sister nor her parents got the parasite and this seemed unusual since they lived in the same house and supposedly drank the same water. Unable to discover the source of the infection, they could not prove conclusively that Heather had gotten Giardia from water in Big Bear.
Heather was prescribed a medication called “Flagyl” and her condition improved over the next few weeks. Still the cautious mother that she was, Kathleen took Heather back to San Diego for several more thorough follow-up examinations before leaving for Chicago in April to start filming “Poltergeist III”. The work-ups consisted of X-rays and other imaging studies of Heather’s stomach and intestines. Although the Giardia infection was cured, the inflammation in Heather’s small intestine had remained and doctors suspected that she might be in the early stages of developing “Crohn’s disease”, an inflammatory bowel disease that is known to sometimes occur following an infection involving the gastro-intestinal tract. Heather was started on medication for Crohn’s disease to minimize further inflammation and damage to her intestine. She was still taking these medicines while filming “Poltergeist III” in Chicago and the side effects altered her appearance noticeably as the production progressed. Under medical supervision with a local doctor in Chicago though, Heather seemed to improve, and she tolerated the duration of the treatment quite well. Eventually, the medications were to be gradually reduced according to the standard of treatment and so by the end of principal filming in June of 1987, Heather’s appearance began returning to normal. To celebrate the end of filming, Heather’s family planned to vacation the Summer of 1987 before returning to California. They finally decided upon a road trip and so Heather’s stepfather Jim Peele, also a part-time truck driver, drove Heather and her mother in the tractor of his semi-trailer rig from Chicago to Disney World in Florida and back across the southeastern United States, finally arriving in California at the end of August.
Before Heather had left for Chicago to begin the filming of “Poltergeist III”, the family decided to move back to the San Diego area. They had been living in Big Bear Lake for three years and had many wonderful times there, but Heather and Tammy had been longing for some time to return to their hometown of Santee to be closer to family, and to attend their old schools and see their childhood friends again. So, while Heather was gone filming, the house in Big Bear was sold and they began the moving process. By the end of summer, they had completed their relocation back to East San Diego County, settling in Lakeside, which was very close to Santee. During the time that she was in Chicago, Heather had written Tammy a letter expressing her homesickness for Santee and her hopes of both moving back there and of returning to her old school, but since they were now living in Lakeside, the district zoning stated that, as a resident of Lakeside, Heather had to attend a Lakeside school.
In September of 1987, Heather started 7th grade at Tierra del Sol Middle School in Lakeside and gradually settled back into a typical life of family, friends, and school. She had taken a break from TV acting but was looking forward to the following spring, which was when some additional filming of “Poltergeist III” would need to be done in order to make its scheduled release in the Summer of 1988. Of the three Poltergeist films, Heather was most enthusiastic about this particular one because she made the most friends on the set, and, as her director Gary Sherman put it, “Heather got to act and not just react”, unlike the first two films. She would only be twelve years old when the movie would be completed and released the following year, but not too young, Heather thought, to get herself an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Sadly, Heather would neither complete the additional filming, nor win her academy award.
At the end of January 1988, Heather started feeling slightly ill again. On January 29th, a Friday morning, Heather had casually mentioned to her sister Tammy that she did not feel like attending P.E. class in school that day but never said why. She may not have felt well, but Heather seldom, if ever, complained about feeling sick, and so eventually she went to the class. Saturday, she stayed at home most of the day but in the evening went out to eat dinner at the restaurant where Tammy worked and seemed to be feeling all right. By the following day though, it was apparent that Heather was ill.
Sunday morning, Heather’s mother and stepfather were awakened to the sound of her being sick. Her mother called out to her, and Heather came into their room and crawled into bed with them for a few hours. She spent the remainder of the day resting on the sofa, while her mother periodically checked on her. Heather’s signs and symptoms were again becoming “flu-like” and so her mother kept her comfortable and gave her fluids as recommended by the advice nurse with whom she had consulted earlier by phone.
Monday morning, February 1st, Heather awakened for school as usual, and joined her mother who was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. During a brief discussion about how she felt, Heather told her mother that she was “O.K” and that she was still intending to go to school. Kathleen however, felt otherwise and wanted to be sure that Heather was not more ill than she seemed to be. She gave her a piece of toast to eat while considering keeping her home that day. The question of whether or not Heather was seriously ill was answered some minutes later when Kathleen noticed that Heather was having difficulty eating and that she seemed lethargic. Slightly concerned, Kathleen questioned Heather again about how she was feeling. Heather’s response was “Mom, I can’t swallow”. At this point Kathleen became very concerned and took a closer look at her daughter. Heather’s face was pale, and when her mother touched her hands she noticed that they were cold and that her fingers had a bluish tint to them. She also could hear that Heather’s breathing had become shallow and labored and that she appeared to be trembling and growing weaker. Now thoroughly alarmed, Kathleen called the local hospital, which advised her to bring Heather in right away. She told Heather to get dressed but shortly after getting up from the table, Heather cried out to her mother as she slumped to the floor holding her stomach. Now on the verge of panic, Heather’s mother held and comforted her daughter while Heather’s stepfather dialed 911 for emergency services. During the time that it took for the ambulance to get there, Heather had remained on the floor, still conscious and coherent, yet listless. When the paramedics arrived, they immediately began assessing her condition and treating her accordingly. When Heather was being fitted with a mask to administer oxygen, she protested, insisting that she did not need it. The paramedics asked her how she was feeling. Heather’s response was that she was feeling “a little sick”, but assured them that she was “all right”. They gently placed her onto a gurney and loaded her into the back of the ambulance. Her mother climbed into the cab for the short trip to the local emergency room.
Heather was still alert during most of the trip and was able to talk to her attending paramedics but shortly before arriving to the hospital she lapsed into unconsciousness. The paramedics immediately began attempting to revive her as the ambulance radioed ahead that cardiac arrest had occurred. They continued until pulling up to the entrance of the emergency room where a team of doctors and nurses, who had been notified and were prepared for their arrival, met them. The ER team immediately took over the resuscitation of Heather and after several long minutes, succeeded in restoring her vital signs. After Heather was stabilized, her mother was informed of her critical condition and that she would have to be transported by “LifeFlight” helicopter to another hospital. The initial examination had determined that Heather was in shock, but they also noticed that her stomach looked swollen and other signs of what strongly indicated a bowel obstruction. Further suspecting that the obstruction might have already burst and started an infection, they made preparations to transport her to another facility that specialized in pediatric critical care.
Heather was airlifted to Children’s Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. She arrived there in stable, yet critical condition and remained unconscious and unresponsive while they evaluated her and prepared for possible surgery. When her mother and stepfather arrived they were informed of her condition and that she might have already suffered permanent brain damage due to the episode of cardio-respiratory arrest that occurred during the ambulance trip. With her mother’s permission, doctors performed an exploratory procedure and promptly discovered that Heather indeed had an obstruction in her small intestine that had become infected and had already burst. When this occurred, the infectious contents spilled into Heather’s abdomen and bacteria had entered her bloodstream, where they rapidly multiplied and spread throughout her body. The overwhelming infection and build-up of bacterial toxins eventually caused septic shock, and the situation was now life-threatening and required immediate emergency surgery to remove the obstruction and to repair Heather’s small intestine. The operation was a common procedure with a high rate of success and recovery, and was routinely performed on pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital, and Heather’s mother immediately agreed to it, but because of the overwhelming bacterial infection, septic shock, and apparent brain damage that she had suffered, Heather’s condition was uncertain even before the surgery was attempted, and so her mother was also informed that Heather might not survive.
The operation was completed and the intensive care resumed, but Heather showed no sign of improvement. She never regained consciousness and as was feared, her brain showed no activity. She remained alive but shortly after 2:00p.m., her condition began to worsen and soon after, her heartbeat faltered and her breathing stopped. For more than half an hour, doctors tried desperately to rescuscitate her but finally, all hope was lost, and Heather died peacefully at 2:43p.m. She was only twelve years old.