Fixing a broken heart

You can die from a broken heart: One woman’s journey back from stress cardiomyopathy

Our heart can endure so much over time. The wear and tear of elevated blood pressure, too much bad cholesterol and a busy life dealing with finances, raising children and working a full-time job all can take a toll on the muscle that keeps blood pumping through the body 24/7. Add a heartbreaking divorce to an already strained muscle, and the combination could be deadly.

That is the situation schoolteacher Pamela St. John found herself in. She didn’t know what the issue was, she just knew she was struggling to keep up with her students at school, struggling to breathe while walking — especially when using stairs — and was exhausted all the time. After a quick trip to see the school nurse, she headed to the hospital.

Pamela went to Norton Audubon Hospital’s emergency department and was admitted for a battery of tests and a complete evaluation. The official diagnosis: heart failure as a result of broken-heart syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy.

The stress that Pamela was under was causing her heart to fail.

Emotional or physical stress can weaken the heart muscle quite rapidly, making death from a broken heart a possibility. Stress cardiomyopathy often can affect the heart within a week of a stressful event.

Reversing heart failure

The Myocardial Recovery Program, part of the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program, can help patients overcome heart failure.

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As the test results were coming in, so was a team of specialists who would quickly become lifesavers in Pamela’s eyes. Leading the team was Kelly C. McCants, M.D., executive medical director of the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program and executive director of the Institute for Health Equity, a part of Norton Healthcare. He explained that her heart was only functioning at 10%, whereas most people have about 60% to 70% percent heart function.

“Pamela needed our help. Her heart needed to recover from all the strain, and her body needed to recover as well,” Dr. McCants said. “We quickly started her on a regimen of daily medication while also starting to rebuild her stamina with a gradual, medically supervised exercise program.”

Reversing broken heart syndrome

Full heart recovery, or myocardial recovery, reverses heart failure with evidence based treatments and procedures. The Myocardial Recovery Program, part of the Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program, gradually introduces appropriate medication, regular monitoring, cardiac rehabilitation and lifestyle changes to help recover the heart to its optimal efficiency. The program is designed to be initiated within three months of a patient’s diagnosis of systolic heart failure. Research has shown that the greatest benefit of improvement of the heart function within this time frame.

“Patients in the recovery program also have the support of a social worker and nurse educator to help make changes to diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices. They’re there to help the heart recover and continue on that path,” Dr. McCants said. “And these patients will continue to be monitored by the heart failure team to ensure the muscle is functioning properly.”

Pamela is grateful to the heart failure recovery team for the care and compassion she received.

“We worked together,” she said. “They taught me how to live better. They gave me the medical tools I needed to reclaim my life, and I am so thankful.”

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