When Hearts Break – for Real
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Published on June 01, 2016

Mike and Maria McKnight

When Hearts Break – for Real

Have you ever felt so worried, sad or distraught that you felt like your heart was breaking?

Most of the time, it doesn’t go beyond an emotional feeling. But the day after her husband, Mike, was admitted to the Avera Heart Hospital for triple bypass surgery, Maria McKnight experienced a real broken heart.

Mike, although only in his 40s, had a history of “through-the-roof” high blood pressure – so high that the nurse would often get the doctor whenever he had it checked. “I used to laugh it off, but it’s not so much of a joke anymore,” he said.

Mike developed symptoms, and went to his doctor requiring evaluation. He was referred for neurologic and further cardiac evaluation. Tests revealed he’d had a small stroke, but that he also had three blocked coronary arteries. He needed immediate open-heart surgery to save his life.

Having been with Mike for 25 years Maria was concerned about the future. “I couldn’t imagine what our kids would do without him. He’s a phenomenal dad,” she said.

The next day, Maria was at home with her father when she began experiencing chest pain. She initially thought she might be having a panic attack. “But when I sat down, the pain moved up into my jaw and I began to feel short of breath. I knew it must be something more serious.” She made the short trip from her home in Tea to the local clinic. “By the time I got there I had called 911.”

Broken Heart Syndrome

While Mike was recovering upstairs in a patient room from open-heart surgery at the Avera Heart Hospital, Maria was being treated downstairs in the emergency room. She was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.

Broken heart syndrome is a real condition first described in 1990 by doctors in Japan. It was named “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” after a narrow-necked vessel with a larger, rounded bottom that is used to trap octopus. In the United States, doctors most commonly refer to it as stress cardiomyopathy.

“What’s happens is the left ventricle of the heart balloons out,” said David Nagelhout, MD, Cardiologist with North Central Heart and the Avera Heart Hospital. “The heart’s image on ultrasound resembles the shape of that Japanese octopus trap. To the patient, it feels like a normal heart attack, and EKG readings are similar to those of a heart attack. And, like a normal heart attack, it can cause heart failure or even death.”

What’s different is there is no artery blockage, so treatment with balloon angioplasty or a stent is not needed. The condition is usually treated with medications only, and with rest and time, the heart muscle dysfunction recovers.

Those who suffer “broken heart syndrome” are typically middle-aged women under intense emotional stress – such as the death or illness of a loved one, news of a serious accident, a teenage child in trouble with the law or the breakup of a marriage. “It’s believed to be related to a sudden surge in stress hormones,” Nagelhout said.

Don’t Ignore the Symptoms

Whatever the cause, it’s important to take it seriously when symptoms like chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, and/or pain in the arm or jaw occur. “You can’t ignore it. The most damage occurs in the first few hours,” Nagelhout said.

If your pain is due to a traditional heart attack caused by artery blockage, getting treatment as quickly as possible can mean less damage to the heart; it may even mean the difference between life and death.

Mike and Maria completed cardiac rehab together, cheering each other on in their recovery. Now, they have joined a gym and continue their regular workouts. Their 14-year-old daughter also helps. “She doesn’t let us break the rules,” Maria said. Together, the couple have lost more than 100 pounds, “and we’re not stopping anytime soon,” she added.

“We’ve been through a long road together. Our marriage is stronger than ever, and our faith is stronger,” Mike said. Now their hearts are stronger, too.

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