A UC San Diego professor and avid hiker collapsed and died along a trail in San Diego's North County two months ago. Now, officials say her death was caused, in part, by a rare condition that made it impossible for her to sweat.
A report from the office of the San Diego County Medical Examiner obtained by NBC 7 rules the July 5, 2013, death of UCSD professor Ellen Comisso, 65, accidental due to hyperthermia, which stems from unusually elevated body temperature.
But, conditions that contributed to her death included a skin disorder called ichthyosis and a rare condition called anhidrosis, which results in the inability to sweat normally.
According to the report, Comisso’s daughter told officials that her mother had a medical history of anhidrosis and would “reportedly always overheat during hikes, and would seek shade underneath trees or bushes to cool off.”
Pediatric endocrinologist Sherry Franklin, MD, of the San Diego Medical Society, did not treat Comisso, but is familiar with anhidrosis in other patients.
Franklin told NBC 7 the condition is rare, but can be fatal.
She said that when the body is unable to sweat, it can’t cool itself, which can lead to overheating and symptoms of heatstroke, especially during exercise or in hot weather.
“Anhidrosis can lead to dizziness, weakness, muscular cramping, nausea, blurred vision and flushed skin,” explained Franklin. “There are different levels of anhidrosis. It can affect a few specific areas on the body or be diffused all over the body, which is more dangerous.”
Franklin said anhidrosis can be a primary condition inherited at birth or can develop later in life.
She said certain skin conditions, including ichthyosis, can cause anhidrosis. Comisso had a clinical history of ichthyosis, which can cause thick, dry skin that can build up and impact sweat glands.
Franklin said anhidrosis treatment involves curbing the heat-related side effects that stem from the condition by cooling down the body with rest, shade and fluids.
Comisso would often go hiking with her husband, Mladen Soic, who suffers from advanced dementia, the couple’s daughter told investigators back in July.
On the morning of July 5, hikers found Comisso’s body in the brush just off the 4-mile-long San Pasqual Clevenger Canyon Trail near the San Dieguito River Park in Ramona, Calif.
The hikers called 911, and responding officials confirmed Comisso’s death at the scene. There was no evidence of foul play, investigators said.
The report says investigators later learned that a person placed a 911 call to police on July 4 reporting an elderly, confused man in a car in the parking lot near the trailhead.
The man – who was later identified as Comisso’s husband – was taken to Palomar Medical Center. Due to his advanced dementia, he was unable to provide his name or any information.
When Comisso’s body was found on the trail the following day and her daughter was contacted by officials, investigators determined that Comisso had gone hiking with her husband on July 4, but collapsed and died while on the trail.
Soic walked back to their car in the parking lot, but was unable to report that his wife was in distress due to his advanced dementia, the report says. Comisso was found about a half-mile from the parking lot at the trailhead.
On the weekend of Comisso’s death, temperatures in the Ramona area where the trailhead is located ranged from 61 to 91-degrees, according to weather data from Wunderground.
Being that Comisso was an avid hiker, the report says she was found appropriately dressed and prepared for the activity. Her vehicle contained a backpack, hats and sunscreen. On her person, Comisso carried a backpack and fannypack containing water bottles.
Following her death, Comisso’s brother, Sid Turkish, spoke with NBC 7 and fondly remembered his sister as an educator and scholar who loved to hike and walk trails.
Comisso was a longtime professor for UCSD’s department of political science and had been teaching at the university for the past 30 years. She was a Yale graduate and an expert on eastern European economies, and had written a number of books on the subject.