Healing the Effects of a Broken Heart

How an innovative treatment can save the brain when the heart lacks oxygen.


Feb. 14, 2008— -- It was lunch hour just one month ago when Christine Newport crumpled to the ground in the parking lot of her daughter's school and came disturbingly close to death.

"When the school nurse came out, I told her, 'I can't feel my arms and my chest hurts,'" Newport recalled.

Within minutes, an ambulance was rushing her to a hospital. Newport, 41, with no symptoms of heart disease, was in the midst of a major heart attack. And just as she arrived in the emergency room, Newport's condition dramatically worsened.

With 40 percent of her heart starved for blood, she went into full-blown cardiac arrest. The whole heart became a quivering blob, unable to pump any blood.

Doctors grabbed a defibrillator, trying to shock her back to life.

"They shocked her once it didn't work. They shocked her a second time. It didn't work," said Dr. Barry Cohen of Overlook/Morristown Memorial Hospitals in New Jersey.

When Newport made it into the examination room, her oxygen level started dipping lower and lower, and Cohen said she "became bluer and bluer."

"We started doing some compressions on her chest and then shocked her a third time and then, yes, her heart came back." he said.

But only part of it. The medical team still had to deal with a blocked artery that was starving the rest of her heart.

"When we opened up the blocked artery, it was 99 percent blocked." Cohen explained. "Traditionally, it's called the 'widowmaker.'"

The doctors inserted two stents into Newport's artery and got her blood flow back to normal. But then the doctors began to worry about her brain, which could have sustained damage because it was not receiving oxygen.

While her heart was stopped, Newport's brain was not getting enough oxygen. She went into a coma and started having multiple seizures. Doctors feared she was suffering irreversible brain damage.

Studies in medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, have found that mild therapeutic hypothermia can help minimize damage caused by cardiac arrest, including brain injury, stroke, fever and other conditions.

Click here for a comprehensive bibliography.

So they put her into a revolutionary "cooling suit" to lower the temperature in her brain to 91 degrees.

Click here for more information on non-invasive cooling.

"When you cool the brain, you make the brain work less. It slows the brain down and it allows the cells time to recover to stabilize and to prevent brain cell death." Cohen said.

Twenty-four hours later, they slowly warmed Newport, which is a key factor in avoiding cell damage and death. She emerged from the coma and demanded to talk to her children.

Her husband had brought in pictures of their three children and started quizzing her on their birthdays. Newport's cousin later told her that she'd been whispering repeatedly in Newport's ear, "Don't look into the light!"

Newport maintains a sense of humor about the chilling experience, saying that in her first moments out of the coma she was convinced that she was 10 years younger than her actual age.

Doctors say Newport's heart is now working well and she can expect many more years with her family, including a young daughter who has been suffering from a brain tumor for the past two years.

Newport said that her memory is patchy at times. "I remember all the birthdays and all the important dates, but just routine things that happened I have forgotten. It's nothing significant, but little gaps here and there." she said. "It's an odd feeling because there are things that I don't think would come out on their own if no one reminded me."

But most importantly, Newport learned lessons about lifestyle habits she must change.

"I've learned you really have to take care of yourself," she said. "Exercise and eat properly. You really can't take anything for granted."

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.