Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Health

Is dying of a broken heart farce or fact? Tampa doctor explains following deaths of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher

TAMPA — Debbie Reynolds' death just a day after that of her daughter, Star Wars star Carrie Fisher, had the internet abuzz: Can you really die of a broken heart?

Tampa General Hospital heart transplant surgeon Dr. Siva Kumar says yes — "broken-heart syndrome" is a real thing. But it's hard to say whether such an episode is what ended an already aging Reynolds' life.

The likely answer is no, the doctor said, but that doesn't mean emotional stress wasn't a factor or that he could say the syndrome wasn't in part to blame.

"At 84, she probably had high blood pressure," he said. "Of course, after a death, stress is high and blood pressure is going to go up."

That can be a lethal mix.

Reynolds' son, Todd Fisher, said his mother died of a stroke, meaning blood was cut off to her brain.

BACKSTORY: Debbie Reynolds, 'Singin' in the Rain' star, dies one day after daughter Carrie Fisher

So what's the deal with stress-induced cardiomyopathy — or its more common name, broken-heart syndrome?

Kumar said he's seen about 35 patients whose hearts stopped after great emotional stress. All but one was female, and most were postmenopausal. He diagnosed them all with the syndrome.

"It's a real thing," he said. "But the only way to find (if it caused Reynolds' death) is an autopsy."

Broken-heart syndrome usually looks like a heart attack, which is when a blockage stops blood flow to part of the heart.

READ MORE: 'He died of a broken heart': Married 63 years, they died hours apart in same hospital room

Both cause chest pain and shortness of breathe — yet when doctors examine afflicted "broken-heart" patients, their arteries are clear.

The syndrome was defined about 15 years ago, Kumar said, and discovered by a Japanese doctor, Hikaro Sato.

Sato's team theorized the heart's left ventricle was weakened after a traumatic or stressful event, such as losing a loved one.

"Usually it gets better within a few days," Kumar said, "but you have to support the heart."

He recalled one woman's episode happening shortly after an intense argument with her husband ended in him striking her, another when a nurse's daughter died.

"Ten minutes later," he said, "she was in my room."

He said people often survive the episodes if they immediately get medical attention. Death is rare, but can happen.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that doctors have documented numerous married couples dying shortly after the other, suggesting that broken-heart syndrome could be in part to blame.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A St. Pete Beach couple together 64 years die one day apart in 2009

Online, celebrities and fans have been tweeting their support and writing that Fisher's mother must have died of a broken heart. No parent, they wrote, wants to lose a child.

Todd Fisher, 58, told Good Morning America his mom's stroke began as they were arranging funeral plans for his sister in the family's Beverly Hills home.

He told ABC News she missed her daughter and "wanted to see her again."

"I don't think she really meant it quite like that," he said. "But … she went to go see her again."

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.

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