One of my more popular blogs has been the one I wrote about The Perfect Drug as a Murder Weapon. Today, however, I want to introduce you to an interesting method of murder that doesn’t involve any of those substances, yet it’s a most effective lethal weapon. It’s thin air!
An air embolism, officially called a vascular air embolism or VAE, was discovered in the early nineteenth century as lethal. Since that time, fatalities have been associated with the inadvertent introduction of air into a person’s vascular system during trauma or surgery. It occurs when an air bubble or multiple air bubbles enter a vein or artery and block it.
When these air bubbles travel to the brain, heart or lungs, they can cause fatal heart attacks, stroke and respiratory failure. A large bolus of air into a vein can lead to a right ventricular air lock and be immediately fatal.
The death scene from an air embolism can be very dramatic with descriptions of crushing pain in the chest, confusion and disorientation, irregular heart rhythms and skipped heart beats, extreme shortness of breath, and convulsions as air froths through the circulatory system. Death can occur in minutes.
There is continued debate regarding how large an air bubble is fatal to an average-sized person. I’ve seen literature state as little as 50cc can be fatal. Other literature suggests that a much larger dose, around 150 to 200ccs (about the volume of a regular coffee cup) is needed to be lethal. Fatalities are dose-related and the air must be introduced into a vein or artery to be an effective killer.
One of the more intriguing aspects of murder by air embolism is that a writer doesn’t have to consider how the villain secures a chemical murder weapon. The weapon is everywhere, readily accessible and a large syringe is much easier to obtain than a lethal substance. It’s available from any medical supply company, a pharmacy, a veterinary clinic, a supply cart in a hospital, and the like.
Detecting an air embolism as the cause of death (COD) can be tricky since the lethal effects mimic a massive heart attack or stroke. It’s not easy for a medical examiner to determine the COD unless the professional is specifically looking for that telltale evidence.
There are several ways an astute medical examiner could determine that an air embolism is the cause of death. One method is called a trans-esophageal echocardiography. This method uses sound waves to detect air bubbles in the circulatory system. Another method is to insert an arterial catheter into the artery that connects the heart to the lungs. A change in blood pressure in the pulmonary artery indicates the presence of air. The problem is that air dissipates rapidly as a device enters the pulmonary artery and evidence is lost.
I used an air embolism, via an air-filled syringe, as a murder weapon in my current novel Lethal Medicine because of the dramatic murder scene that could be constructed around the murder. For the method of detection, I decided that the medical examiner would X-ray the body to detect air in the circulatory system, particularly the pulmonary arteries. It was important to me that the evidence should be found specifically that way since once the body was opened and the circulatory system exposed, the evidence presumably would be lost.
Writing dramatic murder scenes takes a bit of research and imagination to come up with the perfect lethal weapon that fits into your storyline. Take the time to do that well and you’ll have a killer murder scene.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
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