Five years ago, my friend Merry experienced a series of highly traumatic events in just one week. Her stress was so intense, she suffered a heart attack.
Merry, a 52-year-old mother of two, wife and businesswoman was winding up her retail business when her nephew took a drug overdose, her best friend was admitted to hospital with a brain tumour, and her elderly mother entered hospice after many months of end-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
‘I was under extreme stress, and then my husband and I got into a heated argument. That was when I experienced chest pain,’ Merry said.
At first, Merry thought she was having asthma or a panic attack, but when her inhaler failed to ease the pain, her husband took her to hospital.
After initial examinations and blood tests, Merry was sent to another hospital for an angiogram, the medical imaging procedure that displays the heart and coronary arteries under x-ray.
Merry recalls the cardiologist’s words.
‘I have good news and bad news – there are no blockages, but you have had a heart attack.’
Sometimes, a sudden surge of adrenaline produced during extreme stress or emotion can temporarily overwhelm and “stun” heart muscle. When this happens, the main pumping chamber (left ventricle) becomes weak and misshapen. As with a heart attack caused by blocked coronary arteries, the heart cannot pump blood properly.
Also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome”, the condition is called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, because the misshapen heart resembles the takotsubo pot used by Japanese fishermen to trap octopi.
Merry experienced typical heart attack symptoms (shortness of breath, chest pain) and received precautionary medication while doctors continued their investigations. She had a stress test, echocardiogram and many blood tests. All the results were normal and when Merry returned home, she stopped taking medication.
Takotsubo occurs almost exclusively in post-menopausal women. Despite being potentially lethal, the heart muscle does not die or carry permanent damage and there are no long-term effects. People usually fully recover and never experience it again.
Since her heart attack in 2012, Merry takes better care of herself. She has a less stressful job and practises yoga and meditation.
‘My biggest advice to women is to realise that we cannot and should not do everything. We need to slow down, learn to relax, and ask for help. Do not feel guilty about that. Treat yourself. You only live once, don’t let anxiety take over.’
If this topic interests you can read more here.
Harvard Medical School article for clear diagrams and information
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