The Health Effects of a Broken Heart; Doctors Say It’s Real

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Pam Kirkpatrick's life was filled with the joy of having grandson, Aidan, with her.

"We were like parents, yet we still had that grandparent role.  We were really, really close," Kirkpatrick said.

For three and a half years, Aidan and his mom lived with his grandparents. Aiden’s dad later moved away, his parents divorced and a custody battle ensued.  One day, Kirkpatrick got a text message from her daughter that cut straight to her heart.

"It said I know you all will hate me, but I can't do this anymore.  I'm letting Aidan go.  And I just was what?  .I was devastated," she explained.

Soon, Kirkpatrick was struggling to breathe.

“It felt like weights or somebody was sitting on my chest and that I had a pain in my back.”

Symptoms of a heart attack, yet at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Kansas City, an angiogram showed it wasn't a heart attack.  There was no blockage in a heart artery. More tests revealed something else.

Dr. Jeff Bissing saw Kirkpatrick's heart was only half functioning and told her she had Broken Heart Syndrome.

"I'd never heard of it and thought you're kidding and he looked at me and said no.  And he said if somebody ever tells you can't die from a broken heart, they are mistaken."

Mercy Cardiologist Dr. Robert Stuppy has seen several cases of the condition, but only in retrospect did he realize what it was.

“When they show up in the ER, they look much like an acute heart attack and they have heart rhythm disturbance, so the people that you see that drop dead like that from an intense emotional stimulation, that’s usually what it is,” said Dr. Stuppy.

In Kirkpatrick's case, it was the shocking news that her beloved grandson would be moving away.  In many situations, it comes on suddenly after an intense event, like the death of a loved one, or even being surprised. Heart specialists think broken heart syndrome is triggfered by a surge of hormones.

"The levels become so high that those parts of the heart stop working and behave much like an acute heart attack," Dr. Stuppy told 5NEWS.

Doctors say they see about 30,000 cases of Broken Heart Syndrome every year in the U.S. Women are seven to nine times more likely to suffer broken heart syndrome.  The reason is unclear.

"I think clearly related to stress.  I think the times we live in," said Dr. Bissing.

The good news for Kirkpatrick, her heart soon began pumping normally again.  Doctors say Broken Heart Syndrome is temporary and it rarely kills. According to Dr. Bissing, most patients can recover in a couple of months.

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