Did my past life save my life?

by Rhonda Patrick-Sison

Personal reflections on the Tylenol killings in 1982

It’s been 28 years since the cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol killed Paula Prince, a 35-year-old flight attendant who lived in Chicago. She purchased the tainted Tylenol at the Walgreen’s on the corner of North Avenue and Wells Street in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago on September 29 and died from ingesting the poison on October 1, 1982.

My old neighborhood. My old Walgreen’s.

I was 18-years-old and had just gotten married. Our ceremony was held at St. Michael’s Catholic Church a few blocks away from the Walgreen’s at 1600 N. Wells Street. Today would be the 28th anniversary of my 1st marriage if we had not gotten divorced 3 years into it. I was just a kid and really had no business getting married at such a young age but things were confusing for me back then and all I thought about was living in the moment and experiencing everything I could, as quickly as I could since I was convinced I was going to die young. Later in life I learned a lot about this very common syndrome that strikes people whose parents die prematurely… my Dad was 35 when he was killed in 1979.

Although I had always been psychic and pretty weird to most people, I had seriously settled into a spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical life of detachment, living “outside of my body” if you will. As always, I trusted my intuition and “listened to my heart” while everybody around me stood back and shook their heads at some the decisions I would make because of it. As a newlywed, I felt a sense of hope and excitement about the future but we were always broke, so there was an underlying doubt that any of our dreams would ever actually come true. I was also a freshly christened Catholic and had spent each Saturday afternoon in 1981 taking Catechism classes in order to convert to Catholicism. My husband was raised Catholic plus it was important to his Mom, who I love and admire to this very day. I found comfort in the structure and discipline the church demanded, and frankly, I was tired of the psychic spiritual energy humming around me all the time and saying a “Hail Mary” seemed to really help ground me, not to mention asking my new best friend St. Michael to fight off the fitful dreams I had been having my entire life. I was relieved! Confused, but enormously relieved!

One early autumn afternoon, I had one of those “pressure” headaches and needed some relief and that usually meant some fresh air and a walk. I went to the medicine cabinet to get something to take but we were out. Instead of going to Shinnick’s Drug store, which was right down the street from our apartment, I felt the urge to head to the Walgreen’s to purchase some Tylenol. I was alone as usual since my husband worked the night shift so I had all evening and I felt the urge to walk, so I did. I also felt the urge to go by St. Michael’s to “check in”, so I set out.

In 1982, the streets in the Lincoln Park and Old Town neighborhoods were filled with old abandoned apartment buildings that used to house low-income families. They were being “converted” too, just like me, so I felt connected and tried to send a little extra love to those buildings when I walked past since I could sense the spirits of all of those who lived there before. The old Victorian houses and newly renovated town homes stood side-by-side and I loved the shortcuts I could take, which would lead down brick paved alleys where I could peek into some yards that just exuded “yuppie” vibes.


When I got to the Church, I went and “checked in’ with Jesus and then said hi to Joseph and Mary and sat and connected with the God of my being. As I write this story, I can see myself sitting in the pew as if I’m hovering above myself. I was just a baby, already married and out on my own, but still full of questions, and doubts and ideas about where I fit in to the “big picture.” I was truly naïve about the dangers right in my own backyard, with Cabrini Green being right across the street, and peaceful somehow, I just let that peace radiate throughout my entire being until the spell was broken by someone else entering the church. It was time to go.

I walked into the Walgreen’s store and headed straight to the pain relief section and without hesitation, grabbed the Extra Strength Tylenol and then approached the cashier. She rang it up and I dipped into the pocket of my jean jacket and realized I didn’t have enough money. In those days, I had no credit card, no debit card, cash station machines weren’t invented yet. I had no bank account so everything was paid for in cash. If I didn’t have the cash, I didn’t buy it. I felt embarrassed and stupid not having enough money. I didn’t bring my purse with me because when I took walks, I liked to travel light but I really thought I had enough in my pocket. I apologized and put the Tylenol back on the shelf and took the generic version of it, paid and left. When I got back home I took two pills and made myself some white rice, two flour tortillas with butter, and some iced tea, a common dinner in those days.

I don’t remember exactly when or where I was when I heard about the poisoned Tylenol and how Paula Prince died because she was in the same Walgreen’s, on the same day, and, who knows, perhaps purchased the same bottle of Tylenol I couldn’t afford and had to put back on the shelf. I do remember my husband being fairly unaffected by the whole thing and not making a big deal out of it, while I on the other hand, felt an enormous flood of emotions for several months afterward. I was so sorry yet so grateful. I had some close calls in my life before that moment but none so public and dramatic I thought. Six other people died as well, three from one family, how horrible! This was the event that caused the tamperproof container to be invented. How could I be a part of something like this and it not mean anything?

As is typical in cases of survivor guilt, I felt a sense of grand purpose for a while. I just knew that if my life was spared, it had to mean that I was supposed to go out and do something really big and important with my life! So I set about to do everything with excellence. I wanted to be the best wife, the best friend, the best employee, the best sister, the best neighbor I could be! Then, after years passed and I didn’t do anything “big and important” with my life, I felt like a total failure.

Today, 28 years later, I still wonder why it all happened, but the questions I ask now are different. Today I simply ask “why” instead of “why me” or even why not me?”

After living life, seeking truth and all things spiritual, I am so grateful to be here and to have the chance to do good work in the world. I’ve since moved away from Catholicism and no longer consider myself Catholic although I did make some lifelong friends like Jesus and St. Michael, Mother Mary and St. Joseph, not to mention some pretty sweet Angels! I now believe in reincarnation, and I have had some very wonderful awakening experiences from my past lives. One life in particular was that of a Sadhu. A Sadhu or spiritual teacher wanders the streets with no worldly possessions, only a bowl for people to place food and money in to sustain him. The essence of that lifetime has come to comfort me today, just as it did for that girl who wandered around a Chicago neighborhood, too poor to purchase poison pills.

See Rhonda’s website here.