Did you think that this was another sentimental heart-broken node?

No, broken heart syndrome is an actual medical condition. It is also known as stress cardiomyopathy, transient apical ballooning cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

I first heard about broken heart syndrome in church a few years ago. At the joys and sorrows time, there was an announcement that a church member had been transferred from our local hospital to a larger one. That she had an unusual heart condition, was on a heart-lung machine and was expected to recover.

I thought, another zebra. It must be my patient. Then I scolded that part of my brain for a while, saying that other doctors in town see rare things too.

The cardiologist called me two days later because it was my patient.

Broken heart syndrome was first called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy because tako tsobu is the name of a round octopus trap and the shape that the heart takes when it suddenly gives way. The heart suddenly weakens and the muscle balloons. This causes severe heart failure because the stricken heart muscle cannot pump correctly. There is chest pain and it looks like a heart attack, but when a cardiac catheterization is done, the vessels usually are not blocked.

The heart is stricken by stress. In my patient's case, she was the primary caregiver to her husband, who had cancer. It is often triggered by the death of a beloved spouse; a break up; extreme fear, severe illness or even winning the lottery. It was first described in Japan in 1990. It is 7.5 times more likely to occur in women then men, according to a study at the University of Arkansas by Abhishek Dehmukh MD. He found 6229 cases in US hospitals in 2007, with 761 of the patients being male. It is theorized that a sudden rush of stress hormones damages the heart so that it balloons and that microvascular blockages may play a role.

My patient was on a heart-lung bypass machine, to pump for her heart, for three or four days. Her heart recovered. She spoke to our church and said that as a caregiver she had to learn to take care of herself too.

The poets are right. Our hearts can break, with a mortality rate of 1-2%. Take care.

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For Science Quest 2012.