The pain people experience when they lose a pet is so strong that it can give them something similar to a heart attack, something that the New England Journal of Medicine describes as an actual broken heart. A woman suffered one of those on last year, but she didn’t know at first what was going on inside her chest. She just felt she had to go right away to the hospital.

A 62-year-old woman called Joanie Simpson woke up one day feeling a terrible backache and hard pain in her chest, and 20 minutes later she was arriving at a local emergency room in Texas. Shortly after, doctors decided she had to be airlifted to Houston’s Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center, where doctors initially thought she had suffered a heart attack because she presented all of the symptoms.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, Broken heart syndrome
The woman suffered a “broken heart” after the death of Meha, her dog. Image credit: Joanie Simpson

After doctors performed all the due tests to certify that Simpson indeed had a heart attack, they said that the woman had been misdiagnosed. According to The Washington Post report, they told her that she was suffering from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition that mimics the symptoms of a heart attack and most of the time is linked to the loss of a beloved one  like a child or a spouse. This condition is commonly called a “broken-heart symptom,” and was initially described in Japan in 1990.

However, the 62-year-old retiree who previously worked in medical transcription hadn’t lost any blood-related sibling, such as a lover, a friend, or anyone. Still, she was “close to inconsolable,” and she “took it hard.”

The woman said that she was passing through tough times after mourning the loss of her 9-year-old pet dog, a Yorkshire terrier called Meha. Also, she was worried because her son had to go through back surgery, her son-in-law couldn’t find employment, and she was selling one of her properties. All the stress grouped together and created a time-bomb that made her chest hurt. She said that her dog was the “little girl” of her family because her “kids were grown and out of the house.”

“It was such a horrendous thing to have to witness,” said Simpson. “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.”

People grieving dogs as grieving people

For Simpson, Meha was her daughter. She and her husband used to play with the dog every day, dress her, and feed her with her favorite food. In hot days, Simpson recalled she adored jumping into the swimming pool with Meha. And in weekends, Simpson used to give her hamburgers when her family barbequed.

One of her doctors, Abhishek Maiti, said that Simpson arrived the hospital with a “very concise, elegant case,” which in fact sometimes tends to be very serious and can make the person die in a few hours. Women ages 58 to 75 are the ones who usually suffer from this condition, which can cause weakening of the left ventricle — as the Harvard Medical School write on its website. Researchers estimate around 5 percent of women who first think they suffered a heart attack, ended suffering from a broken heart.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, Broken Heart syndrome
Simpson’s heart after it “broke.” Image credit: New England Journal of Medicine

Although this is not the first case of a person suffering from the broken-heart condition due to the loss of its pet, it reminds us that many can feel something similar when they lose a child as when they lose a pet.

“It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic,” Simpson said of losing a 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.”

The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that people with chronically ill animals have higher levels of “caregiver burden,” anxiety, and stress. It’s the other side of the coin, in which people find themselves sometimes more comfortable loving pets than people.

The heart doesn’t pump as normal

John Hopkins cardiologist and broken-heart syndrome researcher Dr. Ilan Wittstein, who was not involved with the new report, said that the heart muscle “suddenly weakens and doesn’t squeeze the way it should.” When the heart stops pumping normally, the blood pressure decreases and leads the person to a possible congestive heart failure. Any kind of emotional situation can trigger the broken-heart symptom, no matter if the person is completely healthy.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, and since it’s caused by an extreme accumulation of stress, it can also be called stress-induced cardiomyopathy. People who start feeling it present symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath.

“The precise cause isn’t known, but experts think that surging stress hormones (for example, adrenaline) essentially “stun” the heart, triggering changes in heart muscle cells or coronary blood vessels (or both) that prevent the left ventricle from contracting effectively,” Harvard explains on its website.

The broken-heart condition has only been recently reported in the United States. But due to its similarities to heart attacks, most of the people usually don’t recognize they suffer from a broken heart. Fortunately, people rapidly recover with no long-term heart damage in the majority of cases.

Source: New England Journal of Medicine