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No final ruling yet, but medical examiner says Billy Mays had a diseased heart

TAMPA — Television pitchman Billy Mays had two kinds of heart disease, according to preliminary autopsy findings.

"We see this all the time," said Dr. Vernard Adams, Hillsborough County's medical examiner. "What's unusual is that he's a celebrity."

Mays, 50, whose face and voice helped sell $1 billion in products through infomercials, died in his sleep Sunday in his Tampa condo.

It is not yet known whether heart disease killed him. Toxicology and tissue tests could take eight to 10 weeks.

But Adams said Monday that Mays suffered from hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease. The diseases are capable of causing sudden death, he said. The American Heart Association describes sudden death as an abrupt loss of heart function that can occur within minutes after symptoms appear.

The afternoon before his death, Mays was among those on US Airways Flight 1241, which experienced a hard landing in Tampa. He told a television news crew that something fell on his head.

Adams dismissed speculation that the rough landing had anything to do with Mays' death.

"The autopsy found no external or internal head trauma," Adams said.

Associate Medical Examiner Leszek Chrostowski found no evidence that Mays suffered a pulmonary thromboembolism, Adams said. In rare cases, the condition arises from air travel. A blood clot migrates from a leg vein to the artery supplying the lungs.

What Chrostowski did find was a thickened muscular wall in the left heart ventricle and thickening of the walls of an artery supplying the more-than-500-gram heart muscle — signs of a diseased heart.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adams said the most common symptom people describe prior to dying suddenly with heart disease is that of general malaise — of "not feeling well."

More than one-fourth of deaths from heart disease are sudden.

Mays did not have a known history of heart disease, Adams said.

He was, however, scheduled to have his third hip replacement Monday.

Adams said Mays had prescriptions for narcotic analgesic drugs Tramadol and Hydrocodone. Adams said Mays had no history of drug abuse and the pill counts of the remaining medication were in line with what was prescribed.

Mays son, Billy Mays III, spoke on air with radio personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt Monday morning in what appeared to be the only interview a family member granted since Mays' death. Schnitt, who had planned to be on vacation this week, took his show on-air as a salute to Mays, whom he called his friend.

Mays III said the last time he spoke with his father was about 10 p.m. Saturday.

"I could tell the one thing on his mind was that surgery," Billy Mays III said.

The elder Mays had complained to his wife he wasn't feeling well, police said.

Despite that, the younger Mays said, his father had a relaxing evening and, before falling asleep, leaned over to his wife, Deborah Mays, and said something a little out of the ordinary.

"He just kind of said. 'Thank you,' " Mays III told Schnitt. "She said, 'For what?' and he said, 'For being you and for being there.' "

The 23-year-old said he was awakened Sunday with a message to call his mother. When he heard the news, he was reminded of a 3 a.m. speech his father had given him a few months earlier after he called to tell his dad his apartment burned down.

"He kind of gave me this instant speech that, 'Things like this happen, and you just have to keep pushing on,' " Mays III said. "When I got the news yesterday, I panicked for about five minutes maybe, and for some reason I just got this super-calm feeling. Because all I could hear after five minutes was that speech. It just helped me step up and start moving forward."

Deborah Mays, meanwhile, released a statement saying her family was grateful for the outpouring of support, but requested continued privacy.

"Billy would be overwhelmed to see that his life touched so many people in a positive way," she wrote.

In a 7:53 a.m. 911 call made from Mays' home Sunday, Deborah Mays told the operator she awoke to find her husband cold, not breathing and without a pulse.

When the operator tried to instruct her to put him on the floor, she said he couldn't be moved. Then, she handed the phone to a man.

"It's too late," the man tells the operator. "He's gone."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Richard Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

No final ruling yet, but medical examiner says Billy Mays had a diseased heart 06/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 10:28pm]
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