The 78-year-old La Crosse woman fell victim to broken heart syndrome after administering CPR to her 80-year-old husband, Clyde, when he had a heart attack Dec. 14.
- Yes, broken heart syndrome is a legitimate diagnosis.
- If you meet the Benjamins, who have four children and 10 grandkids, you’ll see they don’t look their ages by a long shot. But they will celebrate their 59th anniversary in April.
The celebration already has started for Nancy, who found Clyde slumped at his computer.
“It was very stressful — I thought he was dead,” she said. “I blew in his mouth and — nothing, so I called 911 and hollered ‘heart attack’ and started CPR. The 911 man stayed on the line and I had it on speaker phone.
“When 911 got here, I couldn’t stay in the room,” she said. “I was breathing hard.”
Paramedics took over resuscitation duties and transported Clyde to Gundersen Health System, where he had quadruple bypass surgery on Dec. 17.
Clyde doesn’t remember anything until after he awoke in the hospital, where he said Nancy “was sitting there beside me in ICU, holding my hand.”
“She said, ‘I have chest pains,’” he recalled. “You know what happens when you’re in the hospital and say you have chest pains — they take you to emergency.”
“They hustled me to emergency and did blood work,” Nancy said.
Admitted to the hospital for broken heart syndrome, Nancy had a bed in the same room as Clyde’s until she was released two days later.
Although Clyde actually did have a heart attack, the syndrome Nancy fell victim to merely mimics a heart attack, with chest pains and shortness of breath.
The formal name is stress-induced cardiomyopathy, but its title gets even stranger with its tie to octopuses and its Japanese moniker of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Nancy’s cardiologist at Gundersen, Dr. Stephen Devine, confirmed the diagnosis and the trio of titles for a malady he described as “very unusual — not rare, but infrequent.”
Occurring mainly in postmenopausal women, the condition became known as “broken heart syndrome” in part because it doesn’t include hardening of the arteries typical of many heart attacks, Devine said.
“We see it in any type of stressful situations,” he said. “It can be illness or the stress of the death of a loved one — even gambling losses.”
In Nancy’s case, the exertion of performing CPR and her fear that Clyde was dying combined to, in effect, break her heart, he said.
“They’ve been married so long,” Devine said. “She was very distraught. She did an admirable job doing CPR and calling 911 at the same time. She did everything right.”
The octopus connection dates to the early 1990s, when Japanese doctors gave it the “takotsubo” title because the heart morphs during an attack into a shape that reminded them of the octopus traps denoted name.
“It’s how they trap an octopus,” Devine said. “They put a jar with a narrow mouth and a wide bottom on a rope and drop it into the ocean. The octopus gets in and can’t get back out.”
Similarly, the base of the heart balloons out when a patient is stressed, he said.
Nancy’s prognosis is good, as it is in most cases, because “in general, the heart that balloons out will come back in a short while,” Devine said.
The condition rarely is fatal, and a Mayo Clinic study between 1988 and 2005 found that those under physical stress had a lower survival rate than those under emotional stress.
Clyde, a retired Trane employee and former fighter pilot, said his heart attack was mystifying because he has exercised three times a week for two decades.
“That stumped the doc because I’m not overweight, either,” he said.
When told that his mother died of a heart attack at 46 and his father, at 62, the doctor attributed the attack to family history, Clyde said.
Clyde senses progress in his prescribed rehabilitation regimen, saying, “I’m on machines and I go at my own pace. I get stronger every time.”
Nancy, who is doing exercise rehab just in case, said Valentine’s Day will seem particularly special, adding, “Actually, every day does now. I think about this every day, and I try not to think about him being gone, because that was a possibility.”
BROKEN HEART SYNDROME IS REAL
If you’re still questioning whether broken heart syndrome is a legitimate ailment, rest assured that the American Heart Association supports the diagnosis on its website.
Here’s a link to the Tribune story–click here.