Yes, You Can Die of a Broken Heart

The year 2016 has not been kind to actors and musicians. I won’t even start with the long list of those who succumbed to the curse of  2016, but in the week between Christmas and New Year’s 2016, we were all stunned when Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) died one day, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next. 

Initial news reports pegged the cause of death as a stroke, but today people are gossiping and questioning and whispering about whether she in fact died of a broken heart after the grief of losing her daughter Carrie. I happen to have some personal experience with the idea of dying from a broken heart.

My mom didn’t talk too much about her own mother, and when she did, I could tell it came from a place of great pain. Her own mother fought a lifelong battle with alcoholism and mental illness, and in the later years of her life after losing her husband too young, her mental health started to really decline. I asked my Mom about this from time to time, but the details she chose to share were usually vague. I only knew that my grandmother had died in a hospital (or nursing home), when I was five, on the night that my aunts held a baby shower for my own mother, who was pregnant with her third child.  My grandmother was only 67.

“But Mom, what exactly did she die of?” I begged. I needed to know the answer, partly for my own medical history, but also because I wanted to unveil the mystery that my mother kept this part of her life shrouded in.

“A broken heart”, my mother said matter of factly.  “She missed my dad so much, her heart just finally couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Mom, people do not die of broken hearts, that’s ridiculous.”

Fast forward about six or seven years, to the fall of 2015. I was now in the midst of supporting my own mother through what we thought was her own battle with mental illness (she died of cancer about six months later, but that’s a looooonnnnng blog post for later). I received a voice mail from a nurse in my mom’s tiny town that my mother was being transported to the hospital after they had seen some strange activity on her EKG. I rushed to the hospital ER to find her. She was smiling, but wildly erratic, and the doctors were buzzing around her trying to figure out what was going on. A good looking younger cardiologist tried his best to bring me up to speed, but he was pretty sure my mom was having a heart attack. Knowing what her body and mind had been through in the last year and a half, and that she hadn’t been taking care of herself of eating, I wasn’t surprised.

They whisked her upstairs to cardiac ICU to run a catheter to her heart. I was told it could be a few hours before she came out. As I had just been in this exact ICU almost a year to the date with my ex-boyfriend, who also had a heart attack, I wasn’t overly worried – we were in good hands at this hospital. So I settled into a lounge chair and looked out the window at the view of the city before me, wondering what this latest episode in a long line of tragedies surrounding my mother would bring.

After only about 45 minutes, I looked up to see a doctor still in his ER slippers and shower cap coming towards me, asking if I was Joan’s daughter. After telling him I was, he said to me, “well the good news is, your mother did not have a heart attack. What she had mimics a heart attack, and we will treat it like a heart attack. It’s called ‘stress induced cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome'”…..  I stopped listening at that point.  I think I sank in my chair, shook my head in disbelief, and cried deeply inside for my tiny Mamacita.  Indeed her heart was broken after the life she had. There is a lot more to the mom story, but this post is about Carrie Fisher’s Mom. Maybe.

A few months after that episode, a friend sent me this article about a medical study conducted on women who had suffered broken heart syndrome (it’s much more common in women than men), and the discovery of a potential link to an impairment in the parasympathetic nervous system of these women. I was fascinated by this article because I had been battling my own anxiety and stress issues, and couldn’t understand why, despite eating right, exercising, meditation, breathing practice, and plenty of sleep, I didn’t seem to handle stress as well as other people. I also come from a long line of female relatives who apparently suffered from “bad nerves”. This article helped explain why maybe my inability to handle stress was actually an inherited disorder. Not that it makes you feel better to know there is nothing you can do about it because it’s genetic, but still… answers!

So the moral of the story? Broken heart syndrome is real.  My mother was right. And it may in fact be the reason poor Debbie Reynolds followed her daughter to the great beyond.

p.s. – as I wrote this, I kept thinking to myself that the cardiologist had told me that the syndrome was initially discovered or diagnosed in Japan and had something to do with octopus. My memory serves me well – “takotsubo cardiomyopathy — the one that gives the disorder its name — is ballooning of the lower part of the left ventricle (apex). During contraction (systole), this bulging ventricle resembles a takotsubo, a pot used by Japanese fishermen to trap octopuses.”

p.s.s. – Funniest thing I read on the interwebs about all of the celebrity deaths this year:

bowie

 

 

 

 

 

 

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