It’s not just a saying — you can die from a broken heart

Broken heart syndrome, or stress cardiomyopathy, can be fatal. Here’s what you need to know about this condition.

The human heart can endure so much over time. Stress cardiomyopathy, known better as broken heart syndrome, is a condition where a surge of stress hormones floods the body due to a period of particularly intense emotional events or trauma. This causes heart muscle weakness. While is it possible to die from broken heart syndrome, it is extremely unlikely.

The wear and tear of elevated blood pressure, too much bad cholesterol and a busy life dealing with finances, raising children, handling a divorce and working a full-time job can take a toll on the heart muscle that keeps blood pumping through the body 24/7.

That was the situation for schoolteacher Pamela St. John. She didn’t know what the issue was, but she 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.

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.

Call (502) 636-8266

Request an appointment online

The stress that Pamela was under was causing her heart to fail. She had the classic symptoms of broken heart syndrome, including shortness of breath and exhaustion.

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.”

Schedule an Appointment

Select an appointment date and time from available spots listed below.