Family struggles with UPMC doctor's cyanide death
After almost two weeks, Lois Klein is still wondering what killed her daughter, a prominent UPMC physician.
Dr. Autumn Marie Klein collapsed late in the evening on April 17 and died April 20. She was cremated days later.
“When we were first told by her husband, he said they think she may have had a stroke,” Lois Klein of Towson, Md., said on Thursday. “Then we were told there was no stroke, there was no aneurysm, there was no heart damage. That's all we were told.
“We were struggling with what would happen to a 41-year-old woman. She was in good health.”
Pittsburgh police said Autumn Klein of Oakland had a toxic level of cyanide in her system, leaving her family with more questions.
“I'm assuming she's been poisoned,” Lois Klein said. “For a reason I don't know. I would not be able to pinpoint a reason.”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said detectives are investigating the case as a homicide or a suicide.
“We can't rule out any possibility right now, whether it's a homicide or a suicide,” Zappala said. “There's a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams did not return calls seeking comment.
Lois Klein said she spoke on Thursday with a Pittsburgh police detective who questioned her about her daughter's marriage to Dr. Robert Ferrante, 64, including whether she wanted a second child. The couple have a daughter, Cianna, 6. Ferrante has two adult children. Autumn Klein was taking fertility drugs, officials said.
“She never liked being an only child,” Lois Klein said. “She didn't want her child to be an only child.”
Still, Lois Klein said she hadn't talked to her daughter recently about having another baby and was surprised Ferrante brought it up after his wife became sick.
“During the course of things, he told us they were trying to have another child,” Lois Klein said.
Autumn Klein, chief of women's neurology at UPMC, met Ferrante while she was a student working at the VA Hospital of Bedford, Mass. They shared a common interest in neurology, her mother said.
“She got kind of interested because of his brain, too,” Lois Klein said. “They could converse with one another very easily with no problems because they both understood what was going on. We thought he was a little too old for her, but we came around because he seemed to be the one she wanted.”
The couple married in 2001 and moved to Pittsburgh after Dr. Robert Friedlander, chairman of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, recruited them in 2011.
“She absolutely loved working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,” Lois Klein said. “She was in seventh heaven.”
UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps declined to comment.
Ferrante is co-director of the Center for ALS Research at the University of Pittsburgh. He has a long history of medical research and publications. Ferrante could not be reached for comment, and a man at his home would not answer questions.
Zappala said the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office issued subpoenas “to Pitt and/or UPMC” to help determine a source of the cyanide and how and where the hospitals and labs may store it there.
Stephanie Hon, assistant director and clinical toxicologist at the Georgia Poison Control Center who also is a pharmacist, said cyanide could be found in labs for use in chemical reactions. Hon said it is used in at least two drugs, one anti-cancer drug and another to treat high blood pressure.
“I wouldn't be surprised to find it in a lab,” said Hon, a Duquesne University graduate.
Cyanide is found in plants, industrial chemicals, cigarette smoke and pesticides, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at UPMC's Center for Health Security in Baltimore. It can be a gas, liquid or solid. As little as 100 to 200 milligrams can kill a person, Adalja said.
Cyanide shuts down organs, eventually stopping the heart and respiratory systems. As a gas, it can kill within seconds. As a solid or liquid, cyanide can take minutes to kill someone, Adalja said.
Lois Klein said Ferrante has not returned a message she left with him Tuesday. She last saw him following a memorial at McCabe Funeral Home on April 24. Autumn Klein, an organ donor, was cremated.
Blithe Runsdorf, 68, who lives near Ferrante in Schenley Farms, said she stood in line for more than an hour to greet family members at the funeral home.
“(Ferrante's) demeanor and his behavior and everything I saw about it — he was very polite, very quiet, very subdued,” Runsdorf said. “It looked exactly like it should've looked. I believe everybody was grieving, and the shock of it was the biggest thing.”
Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Aaron Aupperlee contributed to this report.