Is it really possible to die of a 'broken heart' after a break up?

The stress of her break up caused Helen’s heart to stop. Pictured here with her two sons. [Photo: SWNS]
The stress of her break up caused Helen’s heart to stop. Pictured here with her two sons. [Photo: SWNS]

A mum has told how she nearly died of a broken heart when it stopped beating twice after she broke up with her childhood sweetheart.

Helen Ross, 38, was devastated when her relationship with her first love fell apart, but tried to throw herself into her modelling work.

She went to Florida for a two-week modelling stint, but her trip was cut short when she collapsed on her first day of a shoot.

Her heart stopped again in hospital and doctors diagnosed her with stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as ‘broken heart syndrome’.

While the condition is usually only seen in elderly people who lose a life partner, in Helen’s case medics suspected it was brought on by the trauma of the break up.

According to the British Heart Foundation, the condition occurs when the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened and stops pumping blood to the body as well as it should.

“I had never heard of broken heart syndrome before it happened to me,” explains Helen who now lives in Canterbury, Kent.

“I couldn’t believe a break up could affect me physically, to the point where I could have died.

“I felt distraught by the break up, but I didn’t realise it had actually broken my heart.”

Helen broke up with her boyfriend of seven years, Andy, in July 2006, when she was 26. She admits to feeling “inconsolable” but jetted to Orlando to take her mind off things.

“I loved him to bits and could have never pictured myself without him after we’d built a life together – we’d only just bought a house.

“I’d only been in Orlando for 24 hours and was feeling physically normal, but out of the blue I just collapsed,” she explains.

Staff on the photo shoot called an ambulance and she was rushed to hospital, where she woke up 30 minutes later.

“The doctors and nurses were really great, they wired me up and explained I’d have to stay overnight for observation so they could monitor my heart,” Helen says. “A nurse] asked me how I was feeling and how I had slept, and I told her fine – as far as I was concerned, I’d slept like a baby.

“She told me my heart had stopped beating while I was asleep – it had flatlined. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it had happened while I was asleep, I could easily have died! But weirdly, by the time the doctors had come rushing in with the defibrillator seconds later, my heart had started up again by itself. They called it “pot luck”.”

Doctors were confused by Helen’s sudden collapse and couldn’t explain why a healthy young woman’s heart had stopped, seemingly randomly.

She told them that she had recently broken up and they said the break-up was the likely cause.

“I told them how hard the breakup had been for me, how devastated I was and they nodded and immediately said it was to blame,” she explains.

“I had no idea that this sort of thing could happen, but they explained it isn’t entirely uncommon in elderly people who lose their life partner – but it was rare in someone so young.”

Model Helen Ross almost died of a broken heart [Photo: SWNS]
Model Helen Ross almost died of a broken heart [Photo: SWNS]

Helen was eventually airlifted home and treated at Scunthorpe General Hospital with her dad at her side. She now lives with her two sons Hugo, six, and Henry, five, and runs a horse saddle pad business.

Looking back on her experience, the mum-of-two says its taught her not to be so dependent on a man.

“It taught me to focus on the positives and everything I have going for me, as well as to love myself more. I know now I will never let myself get in that position again,” she says.

When couples or close family members die in quick succession, it’s understandable that the second death is often sentimentally attributed to a broken heart. But is it really possible for the trauma of a break up to have the same impact?

The British Heart Foundation describes takotsubo cardiomyopathy as a “temporary condition where your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned. The left ventricle, one of the heart’s chambers, changes shape.”

It can be brought on by a shock. “About three quarters of people diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy have experienced significant emotional or physical stress prior to becoming unwell,” the charity says.

This stress could include break-up devastation.

As a result of broken heart syndrome, a person may develop an irregular heartbeat, or the heart may become too weak to pump enough blood throughout the body.

Many people simply recover – the stress goes away and the heart returns to its normal shape. But in some extreme cases, like that of Helen, the change in the shape of the heart can bring on a heart attack and even death.

A spokesperson for Cardiomyopathy UK, Dr Daniel Hammersley, said: “The condition causes temporary weakening of the heart muscles which results in the pumping function of the heart.

“It can be associated with events that cause intense stress or emotion in some cases. Patients who develop this condition generally experience symptoms of chest pain or breathlessness.

“Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases the heart muscle function recovers within a few weeks. It is a rare condition overall. It affects women more than men. Most frequently it affects people in their 50’s or 60’s, although it has been seen in other age groups.”

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