Real Names: Francisco Martinez, Doris Marie, Ronald Alan, Franklin Losongco Sr., Ralph Losongco, and Franklin Losongco Santos, Jr.
Case: Unknown Disease
Location: Milpitas, Guam; California
Date: December 31, 1960 to November 15, 1991
Details: The Santos family lived on the American territory of Guam, 3,000 miles west of the Hawaiian Islands. Shortly after midnight on December 31, 1960, Donatila and her thirty-four-year-old husband, Francisco, were sound asleep in their Milpitas home. At about 1:30am, she woke up to the sound of him snoring. She thought it was strange because he had never snored before while they were together. She tried to wake him up, but he would not respond. She started crying, but he still would not wake up. She lifted him up and leaned him against her. All of a sudden, he took his last breath and then he was gone. Just four days earlier, he had undergone a physical exam that found him to be in excellent health.
Francisco’s death was initially attributed to a stroke but was later determined to be the result of heart failure. Donatila was left to raise seven young children by herself. For her, his death was only the beginning. In the past decade, five more family members have fallen to a mysterious, undiagnosable disease. Today, Donatila lives in Yuba City, California. She hopes that by presenting her story, someone will be able to help identify this deadly affliction which has plagued the Santos family for three generations.
By 1970, Donatila had remarried and moved with her children and new husband to northern California. Then, on April 17, 1981, the Santos family experienced another sudden tragedy. Twenty-seven-year-old Doris, the youngest daughter, was found unconscious in her bedroom in Santa Clara. According to her brother, Steve, she was half-on, half-off the bed. Normally she kept herself all covered up. He tried to wake her, but she did not respond.
Steve ran to Donatila’s room and told her about Doris. Donatila also tried to wake her, but she was unsuccessful. She told Steve to call the paramedics and the priest. Sadly, it was too late. Doctors determined that Doris had died of acute congestive heart failure resulting from the ventricles’ inability to pump sufficient amounts of blood to the body. They drew no parallels between her death and the condition that killed her father.
Within two years of Doris’ death, twenty-three-year-old Ronald "Ronnie", the baby of the family, began experiencing chest pains. At the time, he was engaged to his high school sweetheart, Dana Novotny. He was found to have a virus of the heart muscle, which could be controlled by medication. Dana was scared about his condition, but she figured he would be fine because he was under a good doctor’s care. She also did not believe that it was related to Doris or Francisco’s deaths, as she thought they were different issues.
By the following September, Ronnie and Dana had married. Under a doctor’s supervision, Ronnie was able to live a normal, active life, which included weekly games of softball. During one game on June 25, 1984, Dana came to watch with a friend at a field in Sunnyvale. After the first half of the inning was over, Ronnie and his teammates, who had been out in the field, came in. According to Dana, there had not been much action; they had not been running around much.
Ronnie came in and was standing by the backstop, talking to a few friends, and leaning on a bat. Suddenly, he collapsed and fell to the ground. Dana immediately ran out to him. He was groaning and moaning, but they could not figure out what was wrong with him. He never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. He was twenty-four. The cause of death: cardiomyopathy, an irregular heartbeat, probably the result of a viral infection. Dana could not believe that he was gone at such a young age.
A year later, the Santos family was forced to face yet another funeral. This time, the victim was the eldest son, thirty-three-year-old Franklin "Frank" Sr., who collapsed while sitting at his Sunnyvale home watching television on June 11, 1985. At the time, his wife, Annette, and Donatila were out running errands. They received a phone call, which Donatila answered. When she got off the phone, she was in a panicked state. She said that they had to go, that something was wrong with Frank.
As Annette and Donatila drove back to their house, Donatila prayed. As they approached the house, Annette saw the shadows from the lights of the paramedic's truck. She knew something was very wrong. They ran into the house and stopped in the dining room. They looked into the living room and saw the paramedics working on Frank. Annette knew that he was gone. Donatila could not believe that she had lost another son.
Tragically, Francisco and three of his children had died of heart disease before reaching the age of thirty-five. Physicians searched for answers and soon discovered that heart disorders had plagued Francisco’s side of the family for a number of generations. Four of his brothers died of heart failure, two while in their thirties. Dr. George Van Hare, a pediatric electrophysiologist, says that what is most mysterious about the family is that none of those who died were thought to have abnormal hearts prior to dying. Also, most of them have had post-mortem examinations and there were no serious problems found.
Frank’s death was also attributed to cardiomyopathy, but doctors were unable to identify the specific disease that would soon claim two more members of the Santos family. On August 7, 1987, another brother, thirty-year-old Ralph, fell asleep on the sofa at his home in San Jose and never woke up. His death was also attributed to a viral infection of the heart. He left behind a wife and two young sons.
Then, on November 15, 1991, fifteen-year-old Frank "Sonny" Santos Jr. was struck down at a high school homecoming dance in Santa Clara. The mysterious malady had skipped to the next generation. His mother, Annette, was called to the gym. She had now lost a husband and a son. When she walked in and saw him lying there still, and the paramedics were administering CPR, she knew he was gone. He was buried next to his Uncle Ronnie. Nearby are the graves of his father, his Aunt Doris, and his Uncle Ralph.
The funeral was a time for Steve, the family’s only surviving son, to reflect on his own uncertain future. He wondered if he would be the next to die, or if it would be one of his sisters, Nina or Maria. Dr. Van Hare believes that the problem that is affecting the family is somewhere in the “genetic code”, and that doctors have just not been “smart” enough to figure out exactly what the problem is. He also believes that the tests are not sophisticated enough yet to discover it. He says that this is a very unusual situation, as there are no other families they can find with similar findings.
Despite the years of pain and hardship, and despite the loss of six loved ones, the Santos family has remained remarkably resilient, drawing from each other the strength and hope that modern medicine has been unable to provide. Steve says that the tragedies have brought the family much closer to each other. He has a three-month-old daughter, and he fears for her, just like he fears for himself and his sisters. Donatila says that she thinks about her children and grandchildren every day and worries about what might happen to them. She hopes and prays that they will not die, and that it will stop.
Recently, Nina underwent tests at Stanford University. Doctors stopped her heart twice in an attempt to determine what might cause it to fail suddenly. However, nothing was found. Frank Sr.'s surviving son, Roque, and Doris's daughter, Shawnter, agreed to undergo tests as well, the latter after she fainted at church.
Doctors are optimistic that advances in technology will eventually help them pinpoint the cause of the illness which haunts the Santos family. However, in the absence of a breakthrough, they hope that someone in the medical community who has treated a person with a similar condition will come forward.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the April 1, 1992 episode.
Results: Solved. After the broadcast, several viewers called the telecenter, believing that the Santos family was suffering from Brugada Syndrome. It is a genetic disorder most commonly seen in Thailand and Laos that causes an increased risk in sudden cardiac death from heart arrhythmia, even without any known underlying cardiac diseases being present. Tests confirmed that they do have this genetic disorder. Frank Sr.'s surviving son, Roque, was put on a pacemaker and the remaining relatives take daily heart medication. Fortunately, since the broadcast, there have been no other deaths in the immediate family.
On January 25, 2014, Donatila passed away at the age of eighty-three.
- Doctors Search for Clues to Similar Deaths of Six Family Members - November 24, 1991
- Clues Sought to Mystery Heart Ailment Fatal to 6 in Family - November 25, 1991
- Outwardly Healthy Family Searches for Answers to Mysterious Deaths - February 16, 1992
- Family's grim story: Members dead at 15, 24, 27, 30, 33 - February 16, 1992
- Santos Family Update on SitcomsOnline
- Francisco, Doris, Ronnie, Frank, Ralph, and Frank Jr. on Find a Grave
- Donatilla Santos' Obituary