When a Broken Heart Feels Like a Heart Attack

Emotional Trauma Can 'Stun' the Heart

Often referred to as "Broken Heart Syndrome," the condition is known technically as stress cardiomyopathy, and the doctors' findings about the syndrome were published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine. Its causes -- identified in a variety of patients and circumstances in the study -- are rooted in the emotions.

"Grief, severe grief, the death of a loved one, is the most common ... and that's why we actually started using the nickname 'broken heart syndrome,' because a lot of the patients had come in after a loved one had died. We've seen severe anger. People who are in domestic disputes, where police have been called. So really it runs the gamut of emotions," Wittstein said.

He emphasized the importance of paying attention to these symptoms, saying, "I think if you are sick enough with the syndrome, it can actually be fatal."

He believes that about one in three people who have this condition would die if they didn't receive medical care.

If it surprises you that doctors seem to have lagged several centuries behind poets in acknowledging the damage a broken heart can do, Wittstein said new technology such as ultrasound is what allowed medicine to catch up.

Doctors at Hopkins now question patients to determine whether the timing of an apparent heart attack is associated with a stressful incident.

Karen Schillings suffered from the syndrome after her daughter died in a boating accident in March 2004.

She is doing well now. She and her husband, Denny Schillings, have created a scholarship foundation in their daughter's memory; and she has returned to work as an art teacher and found that it became a means of dealing with her grief. (To learn more about the foundation, visit this Web site: www.cjsfoundation.org.)

And that's an important point to stress, said Champion and Wittstein.

"In all the years that we've been following patients with this syndrome, we've never had a patient not fully recover from the standpoint of their heart muscle. In reality, the heart is not broken and goes on to fully recover," Champion said.

And that's where medicine and poetry meet: "Time," said Champion, "does mend a broken heart."

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