Woman Diagnosed With Broken Heart Syndrome After Her Beloved Dog Dies

When doctors began treating a Texas woman for a heart attack, they discovered her symptoms were actually due to a broken heart. But her broken heart was not the result of losing a spouse or child. Instead, doctors say that it was the result of mourning the death of her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Meha.

Her dog’s death, broke her heart

When Joanie Simpson woke up experiencing chest and back pain, she thought she was having a heart attack. Her back ached and her chest started hurting when she turned over. Twenty minutes later, she was at a local emergency room, soon to be airlifted to a hospital in Houston. There, physicians were preparing to receive a patient exhibiting the classic signs of a heart attack. But tests at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute revealed something else. Doctors later realized that rather than a heart attack, Simpson was experiencing a literal broken heart, also called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

The case study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that Simpson, a 61-year-old woman with hypertension and hypothyroidism, experienced multiple recent stressors, including the death of her dog. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy, typically occurs almost exclusively in postmenopausal women. It’s a condition that mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, including the chest and back pain Simpson experienced and shortness of breath. What it doesn’t include is clogged arteries consistent with a heart attack.

It usually happens following an emotional crisis such as the loss of a spouse or child. This is why the condition is also known as broken heart syndrome. But in Simpson’s case, it was the death of her dog, Meha, that tipped her over the edge, she tells The Washington Post.  “I was close to inconsolable,” Simpson said. “I really took it really, really hard.”  

When the dog was diagnosed with congenital heart failure, Simpson decided it was best to have her pup euthanized. But she canceled the appointment when the dog seemed to bounce back to health. Sadly, Meha died the next day. “It was such a horrendous thing to have to witness,” Simpson told The Washington Post. “When you’re already kind of upset about other things, it’s like a brick on a scale. I mean everything just weighs on you.”

Broken heart symptom may go unrecognized

After doctors explained what had happened, Simpson said she was not surprised by the diagnosis. “It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic. It is all of the above,” Simpson said about losing her beloved pet. “But you know what? They give so much love and companionship that I’ll do it again. I will continue to have pets. That’s not going to stop me.”

Up to five percent of women diagnosed with heart attack actually have Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, according to Harvard Health. But, since it has only recently been reported in the United States, it can go largely unrecognized.

Features of broken heart syndrome include: 

  • Chest pain and shortness of breath after severe emotional or physical stress
  • ECG abnormalities that copycat those of a heart attack
  • No evidence of coronary artery obstruction
  • Abnormalities in the left ventricle
  • Ballooning of the left ventricle
  • Recovery within a month

Tips on overcoming heartbreak (human and pet)

Mourning a loss can be difficult, especially when it’s a pet who’s died. Some people, including your employer, may not be that sympathetic to the loss of a pet. But there are some things you can do, suggests women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup, to help you get through the heartbreak and stay healthy.

  • Don’t be alone. Even if you are not in the mood, get out with family and friends and start experiencing joy again.
  • Stay active even when you don’t want to. Being active increases levels of feel-good endorphins, along with neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine — exactly what you get from antidepressants.  
  • Maintain proper eating habits. You may not feel like eating when a beloved pet dies, but when you’re under stress due to heartbreak it’s even more important to maintain a healthy diet. Reach for fruits and vegetables that don’t take long to prepare. Be sure to avoid alcohol and caffeine, suggests Dr. Northrup.
  • Avoid prescription drugs for depression. Often the same prescription drugs used to treat anxiety and depression are the ones that worsen these conditions.
  • Take time to grieve and heal. Usually, when a pet dies, it’s back to work as usual. But that can make you feel worse. Take time to meditate, soak in a bath, read, watch a movie or simply listen to uplifting music. Give yourself permission to cry and feel whatever emotions you have been holding on to. Do this for about 10 to 30 minutes each day if needed.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of broken heart syndrome, follow up with your doctor immediately. And if your doctor believes you may have broken heart syndrome, you’ll probably need more tests to be sure your heart is functioning normally. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you. Fortunately, most people with this condition recover quickly, with no long-term heart damage.

— Katherine Marko

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