Prairie Doc Perspective: Mending a broken heart

Richard P. Holm
M.D. Special to the Farm Forum

Mrs. H. was in her mid 80s when her husband died. I admired how she had provided loving care for him “in sickness and in health” right up to the end. Despite his expected and comfortable demise, his death broke her heart. It was like the painting of Mother Mary with a stabbed and bleeding heart. Mrs. H. began having trouble breathing, swollen legs, and profound weakness. I suspected what was wrong and ordered an echocardiogram.

Science proves the heart is a powerful pump, but history portrays it as the seat of emotion. As a pump, one heart moves about 2,000 gallons of blood each day, totaling about 3 super tankers worth in a lifetime — through 60,000 miles of veins, arteries, and capillaries. The largest artery is the size of a garden hose while the smallest capillary is the size of a human hair split ten times.

As a seat of emotion, the heart was described by Aristotle 2,500 years ago as “the center for intelligence, motion, and sensation; while the brain, liver, and lungs are there to cool down the heart.” Seven-hundred years later the Roman physician Galen wrote: “The heart is the organ related to the soul.” Eight-hundred years after that, Persian physician Avicenna wrote: “The heart is the root of nutrition, apprehension, breath, and the source of intelligence for all other organs.” Others in medieval Europe claimed the heart “gives rise to anger, passion, fear, sadness, or joy.”

We still romanticize that the heart has something to do with emotions. This is patterned in hearts by lovers during Valentine’s Day; by H. Jackson Brown Jr. when he said, “Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye”; by Princess Diana when she said, “Only do what your heart tells you”; or by right-wing political pundits who critically term empathetic left-wingers as “bleeding heart liberals.” However, the emotional connection to the heart became more than romance and metaphor when Japanese physicians described Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or “Broken Heart Syndrome,” in 1990. This life-threatening heart weakness can occur in one experiencing severe loss such as the death of spouse or even their own devastating experience of a critical illness.

Mrs. H’s heart echo proved the diagnosis of Broken Heart Syndrome, and she was treated and relieved by diuretics. However, the ultimate cure came as she mended her own broken heart with new friends, positive thoughts, and some time to allow cleansing grief flow over and past her.