Another Valentine’s Day has passed and Brittany Thornton has survived this one like all the ones before it. That’s no small feat considering she once nearly died from a broken heart.
“I almost felt like my heart was outside of my body, it was pumping so fast,” Thornton said, “They come in, all the white coats, say you have advanced heart failure. And I look around me, are they talking to me? Because there is no possible way. And that’s what they diagnosed me with.
Dr. Viviana Navas is a heart failure specialist at the NCH Heart Institute; “Medically, we call this stress cardiomyopathy.”
Navas has seen it before. In common terms, the condition is called ‘broken heart syndrome’.
People who experience extreme emotional trauma can develop sudden and severe heart muscle failure.
“It’s associated with a very stressful situation,” Navas “So someone who was doing well, and then all of a sudden hears some really bad news, or goes through a very stressful situation in a very acute way, and then develops distress, cardiomyopathy.”
Thornton’s heartbreaking story began as a fairy tale. She was a 25-year-old dancer for the NBA.
During halftime at a Charlotte Hornets game in 2019, her boyfriend proposed right on center court. The happy video has gone viral.
Later, the couple finally broke up, and this breakup led to a health crisis for Thornton.
She said, “You commit; you promise someone that you will spend the rest of your life with them. And if it doesn’t work, you know, it confuses you and surprises you. I mean, rewire your whole nervous system, I would say.
Being young and healthy, she ignored the symptoms of heart failure: chest pressure, palpitations and weakness. By the time she sought medical help, her heart was in irreparable distress.
“They gave me a heart catheterization, they saw that my functionality, the heart was at 15%. It was twice that he had enlarged twice the size he was supposed to be.
She was listed for a transplant.
At 25, an external device pumped her heart until she could get a new one. Six weeks later, Thornton underwent surgery to replace his ailing heart.
“The operation took place just at 10 o’clock, I think,” she recalls. “And you know, you sign the waiver, you give up your life, you might wake up, maybe not.”
The diagnosis of broken heart syndrome comes mainly from the exclusion of other causes.
The tests look for blockages in the arteries and use an electrocardiogram to determine if the patient has suffered a heart attack. A telltale feature is a deformed lower left ventricle.
“Right after the transplant, they took the natural heart and the pathologists, that’s what they found. So the left ventricle had swollen so much. It was basically like a rubber band, it couldn’t flap once it was stretched, it couldn’t spring back to its natural shape.
In the past, the diagnosis was rare, people even doubted its existence. Since the pandemic, stress-induced cardiomyopathy has increased.
Dr Navas said: “I see at least 10-15 cases a year, and it’s seen more often in women, older women.”
Thornton is an exception in many ways. Most of the time, people get help right away and the disease is treated before it leads to heart failure. Being young and strong, she never suspected that her heart was dying. Three years later, it is operational. With a grateful heart.
“I wasn’t born with it,” Thornton added, “But it’s, you know, forever woven into who I am as a person.”
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