LOS ANGELES - It’s a condition most people have never heard of: Broken Heart Syndrome, where one intense event can cause your heart to fail even if you have no heart disease or risk factors.
The majority of people who experience Broken Heart Syndrome recover as long as they get help in time. And in most cases, after the attack, their hearts look as normal as can be.
“It was a place to relax, I enjoy nature just to get away from everything.”
Two to three times a month 63-year-old Pat Amelino and her family went up to their cabin in Big Bear, but one night several years ago, the calm turned into a nightmare.
“I’m standing at the glass door, I reach up for the light switch and there’s the bear, nose to nose, I can see her claws.”
Her husband had left early to go back to work. She was alone with her 90-year-old mother.
“In short, I was in the cabin, a bear came, I thought it was man. I scared myself to death and gave myself a heart attack.”
Pat Amelino was having chest pains during the whole incident, but had no previous signs or symptoms of heart disease. What she had was Broken Heart Syndrome.
On this scan, the vessels on the left side are perfectly fine, yet despite this, she had a massive heart attack induced only by stress.
“This is an angiogram. You can see that the apex of the heart is not moving, which is classic for Broken Heart Syndrome.”
Dr. Kathy Magliato, director of Women’s Cardiac Services at St. John’s Health Center, says Pat is a classic case of Broken Heart Syndrome, where intense anxiety or one emotional event will cause a surge of adrenaline in the heart, stun it and cause heart failure or a full-blown heart attack.
The most shocking thing about BHS is that it occurs in patients who have no previous history of heart disease. In fact, the majority have no risk factors for heart disease, so the traditional risks like smoking, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, family history of diabetes… they have none of those and still develop BHS.
Broken Heart Syndrome can happen during an intense emotional event like marital stress or the breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or in Pat’s case, extreme fear.
What this tells us is that stress is a very real and very significant factor for heart disease. In fact, recently, Magliato was called in for another case of BHS, a patient rushed to the hospital after an emotional event – again no risk factors of heart disease.
“When we looked at her films and saw the function of her heart, it was so diminished, she looked like a patient who would otherwise need a heart transplant to survive,” says Magliato. “I personally thought the patient would die.”
So it’s true, and not just a clique, you can die from a broken heart, or scare yourself to death.
“I guess I have to believe it. It happened to me, I had no previous history and I don’t have heart disease,” says Amelino.
Now, her heart is as normal as it can be, but the cabin in Big Bear, it’s been sold. She never felt the same again on her visits there, and the few times the Amelinos did go after the bear incident the memories were tense.
Amelino recalls, “I always had a shotgun loaded with beanbags, a bottle of port, and the minute I heard a noise, I’d take a shot of whiskey, load the gun and everybody stay behind me.”