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January 7th, 2009
06:43 PM ET

What we know about Jett Travolta's death...and what we don't

Program Note: Tune in tonight to watch Randi Kaye's full report on AC360° at 10pm ET.

This undated photo shows Jett with his dad, John, mom, Kelly, and sister, Ella.

This undated photo shows Jett with his dad, John, mom, Kelly, and sister, Ella.

Miriam Falco
CNN Medical News

Millions of Americans were sad to learn about Jett Travolta’s sudden death at age 16 - and speculation about the cause was immediate. Two medical explanations related to Jett’s health surfaced pretty quickly. Kawasaki syndrome and seizures. Many people wondered if there was more to it than that. Here's what we know:

Jett's parents, John Travolta and Kelly Preston, say that years ago their son Jett was diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome at age 2. Shortly after the world learned about his death, one of the family’s attorneys, Michael Ossi, said Jett had had a seizure. Now various news media, including CNN, have quoted a funeral home employee in the Bahamas as saying the death certificate lists a “seizure disorder” as the official cause of death.

Neither Travolta nor Preston has said what caused Jett’s death. They don’t have to. The lack of official statements from the family or its representatives has left entertainment news and tabloid outlets filling the gaps. And that has fueled worldwide interest in this story for nearly a week - and counting.

In the interim, a lot of people learned for the first time about Kawasaki syndrome. It’s an illness diagnosed in about 4,000 U.S. children annually, 80 percent of whom are under age 5. The cause is not really known, but a viral or bacterial infection is suspected and it leads to a severe immune response and inflammation of arteries. Symptoms include a high fever, swelling of hands and feed and lymph nodes. In 15 to 25 percent of cases, the inflammation can cause permanent damage to heart arteries, which in turn can cause aneurysms. In very rare cases, these aneurysms can cause a heart attack later in life. But seizures are not the most common problem in Kawasaki syndrome, according to Dr. Cam Patterson, a cardiologist and geneticist at the University of North Carolina, who follows the disease. Other experts I spoke with said Kawasaki syndrome is a cardiovascular or heart problem, not a neurological problem.

Still, the many reports that mention Kawasaki syndrome and seizures in one story probably have many thinking there is a connection.

So if it’s not Kawasaki syndrome, what can cause seizures or a seizure disorder? The Internet rumor has suggested that Jett Travolta had autism. According to Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, professor of neurology, pediatrics and director of the epilepsy center at Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York “…essentially anything that causes the brain to have significant dysfunction - mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism – can cause seizures.”

But there can be dozens of other reasons for seizures in adolescents, including genetics, brain tumor, trauma to the brain and infections. Various media report Jett had seizures for years - and was taking medication but then supposedly stopped taking it when the drug stopped working. CNN has not been able to confirm these reports. The PR firm representing the Travolta family is not returning calls.

One rumor that has flourished on the Internet - and it's just that, a rumor - is that Jett had autism and that his parents, members of the Church of Scientology, didn’t get him the proper treatment. No one has confirmed this either – not the autism diagnosis nor the lack of treatment. A lot of articles have suggested that Scientologists do not believe autism exists. But Tommy Davis, Spokesman for the Church of Scientology, says the church does not have a position on autism. He told CNN that the church doesn't involve itself in the medical decisions of its members, saying, “We don’t recognize autism and we don't "not" recognize autism - we just don't get into that at all." Davis also told us that if someone has a medical condition, “by policy, we tell them, you need to see a medical doctor.”

At this point, it’s unclear if we will ever know what caused this 16-year-old’s death beyond a “seizure disorder” being listed as the cause of death. What we do know is that his parents and sister are grieving in Florida.

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Robin Nemeth

    The most popular Google searches on the Travoltas include the word ‘autism’. But on my telly when the story is reported (in between pharmaceutical commercials, always), the word is verboten.

    There is an eight hundred pound gorilla sitting the middle of the room, and although it STINKS to high heaven, it’s being ignored.

    January 8, 2009 at 10:41 am |
  2. Nadine Buchko (Pittsburgh, PA)

    It is no one's business what went on in the Travolta household with regard to their son's seizure illness. If they did, in fact, choose not to medicate for whatever reason that is there business.

    Everyone wants to comment and speculate because they are Scientologists. Their "beliefs" are no different than Christians or other "religious" groups. I am sure many feel that scientology is strange and far fetched, but when it comes down to it, don't you think all religion is?

    January 8, 2009 at 8:57 am |
  3. marta akashe

    Could Jett read, write, talk, play? Did he ever attend school? Even though it's nobody's business what his situation was, the Travoltas saying he had Kawasaki syndrome that caused severe seisures and death at age 16 will scare the parents of every toddler who is diagnosed with this disease. A bout with Kawasaki syndrome at age 2 has no correlation with neurological or psychiatric problems at age 16.
    I didn't see many pictures of Jett over the years, but a few times when I did see him I always thought something was wrong with him. If they wanted to keep Jett's problems private they should not have said anything at all. It just scared and confused probably a lot of parents.
    I was very sad and shocked when I heard Jett died, but I was even more shocked when I heard he was cremated in a flash.
    This boy was appearently very much loved..so rest in peace Jett..Thank you

    January 8, 2009 at 8:25 am |
  4. Alice

    I think at this time, the Travolta's are having a hard time dealing with the death of their beloved son. To have to deal with the speculation of "what we don't know about Jett's death" is inhuman and heartless. Why do we think that we have the right to know? Let's offer the family our condolences and prayers and leave them in peace.

    January 8, 2009 at 7:11 am |
  5. Shazre

    Why cant the world leave this family alone? The thing is that all of us have too much time on our hands and with the growing technology we are letting things go out of control. Here is a normal family, mother, father, children. They just lost a son; anyone who has lost a child can feel their pain. Just because they are the TRAVOLTAS, it gives no one any right to interfere.
    The child is no more, may his family get peace. It is none of our business how the child died, what good is the speculation going to do? Is it going to bring back Jett for the Travoltas.
    My prayers are with the family, may he rest in peace.

    January 8, 2009 at 4:50 am |
  6. Les M

    I don't disagree with any of the above. Also? Treatment for autism? That in and of itself is another silly internet rumor. That just fuels the idea it's the parents' fault or something. Autism itself can't cause death. If the autism is caused by a seizure disorder, then that could cause death. There are also medications that can help with dealing with autism, but those would fall under the psychiatric medications Scientologists *don't* believe in. Which all leads back around to "leave them alone".

    January 8, 2009 at 3:31 am |
  7. Robert Gordon

    Why on earth do so many people and especially the media, think that it is their business to raise any kind of suspicion, in the death of a young teenager and especially after the cause of death has been deternmined ?

    My sympathy goes out to the family and it it is time for everyone to respect their absolute right to total privacy and that the media put an end to the ongoing mentioning of Jeff's passing !

    How do you think they must feel, to turn on their TV only to see constant snooping by the press?

    Leave the family alone people and that includes you the media !

    January 8, 2009 at 12:51 am |
  8. judy

    Let's allow this family to grieve in private. The details are really non of our business. My heart goes out to the Travolta's.

    January 8, 2009 at 12:32 am |
  9. PA

    Why do people feel they need to know this? The Travolta family need our support and prayers now not our speculations and inquiries. Maybe Technology has maybe given us a false sense of entitlement .

    January 7, 2009 at 10:14 pm |
  10. Jeanine

    Why is the media speculating? This is not a Anna Nicole Smith family. This is a family who had values, who raised their kids quietly & out of the spotlight of their jobs. This is a family that has been together all these years just living their lives & loving each other. John has always been a respected person all these years we watched him grow up on TV and in the movies. The only story here is the loss of a boy who was loved by his parents and sister. Who will be missed terribly by them. You can see the love they shared just looking at the pictures. My heart aches for them and can't imagine how they will go on without their son. No parent can imagine this. Why do you speculate? Why do you air an hour on LK with people who never even met them giving their thoughts? Let's just embrace them and let them grieve in peace & with the respect they deserve.

    January 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm |
  11. Annie Kate

    Condolences to the Travolta family at this time are the only appropriate expression right now and for later as well. Just because the Travolta's are well known does not give us the right to know their business. The Travolta's may at some point choose to share more information or they may not. Either way its really not our business. As compassionate people we should be willing to extend a hand in help and support to the family without opening our mouths to speculate on what did or did not happen with Jett and if his parents decisions concerning is care was legitimate.

    January 7, 2009 at 9:36 pm |
  12. JoyceLinda

    I agree, let the family alone. They are having enough of a difficult time grieving their son who they loved so much and their daughter grieves her brother. Stop digging . Im sure they did everything they can for Jett.
    May he rest in peace!

    January 7, 2009 at 9:19 pm |
  13. Alex

    My goodness! Doesn't the news media have anything better to talk about than the tragic death of a young man who happens to be the son of famous movie stars? Leave the Travolta's alone and let them grieve in peace. If I were in this horrible situation, the last thing I'd want to hear is what the public thinks about my religious beliefs or what "should" have been done trying to prevent such a tragedy!

    January 7, 2009 at 8:24 pm |
  14. DENNIS

    I think that in there is a lot of stuff we honestly will not know of Jett's death.....

    January 7, 2009 at 7:05 pm |
  15. Steve B

    Truly a sad, sad event for the Travoltas.

    With regard to the Scientologists and autism: could it be that people are confusing Scientology with the Church of Christ, Scientist?

    January 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  16. Cindy

    Does it really matter how Jett died? I mean none of us are his family so it really isn't any of our business. The fact is that what ever was wrong or wasn't wrong with him doesn't concern us. His family is OK with what the cause of death is and that is all that matters.

    As far as seizures go they can cause death if they go on too long and aren't stopped because it causes brain damage. Each time you have one it does harm your brain a little. But having a grand mal that does not stop but continues can damage your brain enough to kill you.

    Everyone should just mind their own business and leave John, Kelly and their family alone!

    Cindy...Ga.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm |
  17. Brandi - bottom of the boot

    all of this speculation is not good for the Travolta's. im sure they will share when they are ready to. i doubt very seriously that they would allow their son to go without treatment.

    im sure they did all they could for their son, just as any other parent would. this is a horrifying experience for them and they should be allowed to grieve as any other parent would.

    sending condolences is one thing, but speculation is not appropriate.

    January 7, 2009 at 7:01 pm |