Until Death Do Us Part: Broken Heart Syndrome Befalls Doug Flutie’s Family

Last week, we learned with shock of the death of a beloved couple, Dick and Joan Flutie. Hearing this startling news, definitely impacted me and made me think about just what it meant to truly have a broken heart.

To the majority of most of my readers outside of New England, the name “Flutie” may not be as recognizable elsewhere as it is in Massachusetts. Dick and Joan were the parents of former professional football player, Doug Flutie. Dick had been ill for a while and died of a heart attack in the hospital. While this is tragic, what was more shocking was that less than an hour later, Dick’s wife Joan suddenly had a heart attack and also passed.

Their son, Doug, made a heart-wrenching statement shortly thereafter on Facebook. I can only imagine the pain that he and the rest of his family must have been, and are still, experiencing.

This situation certainly isn’t the first instance of a couple passing within hours or days of each other—and I am sad to say that it will also not be the last. What this proves, however, is that it is entirely possible to die of a broken heart. Broken Heart Syndrome is a real thing.

Breakdown of a Broken Heart

Broken Heart Syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can strike even if you’re healthy. (A bit of trivia…Takotsubo are octopus traps that resemble the pot-like shape of the stricken heart.) This condition affects about 30 percent of the population—and if you are a woman, you need to know something else…

Women are 90 percent more likely than men to experience the sudden, intense chest pain — the reaction to a surge of stress hormones — that can be caused by an emotionally stressful event. It could be the death of a loved one or even a divorce, breakup or physical separation, betrayal or romantic rejection. It could even happen after a good shock (like winning the lottery or being surprised at a “Surprise” birthday party).

Oftentimes, Broken Heart Syndrome may be misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms and test results are similar. In fact, tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances—these are typical of a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries in Broken Heart Syndrome. In this condition, part of one’s heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. Researchers are just starting to learn the causes, and how to diagnose and treat it.

With all of this being said, there is good news and bad news related to this serious, life-threatening condition.

The bad news: Broken Heart Syndrome can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.

The good news: Broken Heart Syndrome is usually treatable. Most people who experience it make a full recovery within weeks, and they’re at low risk for it happening again (although in rare cases in can be fatal).

Signs and Symptoms You Should Know About

According to WebMD.com, the most common signs and symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome are angina (chest pain) and shortness of breath. These symptoms are also usually accompanied by sweating and arm pain. You can experience these things even if you have no history of heart disease.

Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) or cardiogenic shock may also occur with Broken Heart Syndrome. Cardiogenic shock is a condition where a suddenly weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, and it can be fatal if it isn’t treated right away. (When people die from heart attacks, cardiogenic shock is the most common cause of death.)

Heart Attack and Broken Heart Syndrome: What’s the Difference?

While the common symptoms that I outlined above sound very much like a heart attack, it’s important to note that some signs and symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome differ. In Broken Heart Syndrome, symptoms typically occur suddenly after an individual experiences extreme emotional or physical stress. Here are some other differences:

  • EKG (a test that records the heart’s electric activity) results don’t look the same as the EKG results for a person having a heart attack.
  • Blood tests show no signs of heart damage.
  • Tests show no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries.
  • Tests show ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle).
  • Recovery time is quick, usually within days or weeks (compared with the recovery time of a month or more for a heart attack).

Being Aware of the Physical Implications of Grief in Business

As an employer, being aware of the physical and emotional symptoms of grief is just good business practice. Your employees provide resources and human capital that keeps your business moving forward. The more that organizations, human resource professionals, and the C-suite understand the complexity of catastrophic events on an employee’s well-being, the more proactive support for work/life balance can be offered.   Delivering support during this difficult time may provide relief from some of the stresses they are facing and therefore, offer a defense against Broken Heart Syndrome.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski