Can someone die from a broken heart? Debbie Reynolds' death brings question back to forefront

Can someone die from a broken heart? Debbie Reynolds' death brings question back to forefront

December 30th, 2016 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

In this Sept. 10, 2011, file photo, Debbie Reynolds, left, and Carrie Fisher arrive at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Reynolds, star of the 1952 classic "Singin' in the Rain" died Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, according to her son Todd Fisher. She was 84. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you think it's possible to die from a broken heart?

Until the coma, Amy Dendy maintained a rigorous routine.

From 6:40 a.m. to 3 p.m., she would teach a group of special education students at East Ridge Middle School. After a brief snack at home, she would push through mandatory paperwork on and off until midnight. Anything she didn't finish, she completed on her off-days over the weekend. She knew the stress was overwhelming, but Dendy never thought it would nearly break her heart.

Not much information was released this week when actress Carrie Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, died the day after her daughter. But some doctors and officials speculated she died of a broken heart. A few local doctors said Thursday that "broken heart syndrome" — while not necessarily the cause of death for Reynolds — is a very real disease with several unknowns among the general public.

"Broken heart syndrome is something we've learned a lot about in the last 10 years," said Alison Bailey, a cardiologist with Erlanger hospital. "I've seen it after things more simple: death of a pet, argument with a spouse. The heart becomes weak all of a sudden, and [patients] come in with shortness of breath or chest pains. I've had people come in with cardiac arrest. It can be quite a challenge to treat."

Dendy, a 44-year-old who maintained a fairly active, smoke-free lifestyle, said stress probably factored into her episode, which began May 11. Thinking it was the flu, she let the symptoms fester for two days. By that time, Dendy was so weak she had to slide down the stairs on a pillow at her home in Hixson.

At a neurologist's office near Erlanger, an aide took Dendy's blood pressure and found something "crazy low — like 60," she said. Completely unable to walk, Dendy resorted to a wheelchair that her fiancé had grabbed. "They took my vitals," she remembered Thursday, "and said, 'We think she's having a heart attack.'"

But inside Erlanger, a litany of tests didn't reveal a heart attack. It was an oddity for doctors because several tests showed Dendy's heart was fine, she said. "But we all know that when you go into heart failure, that's not fine."

What followed was a three-week coma, Dendy said. She woke up in St. Thomas West Hospital in Nashville with tubes the size of index fingers running around her neck, groin, and mouth.

The war stories followed: A crack team at Erlanger had sent her to Nashville to try to save her life. In the fight that followed, her heart failed three times. Doctors cut into her neck, placed sand bags on top of her body to prevent her from bleeding out and conducted numerous tests to search for traditional heart-attack symptoms, she said. When those searches came up empty, her medical team realized she could be suffering from broken heart syndrome.

"It's called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy," said Rob Headrick, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Memorial hospital who explained that it can be deceptive. "There's a lot of research that's gone into trying to understand it. But the end result, at least with patients feeling like they're having a heart attack, is having everything from chest pains and shortness of breath."

In the Debbie Reynolds case, Headrick said, that level of stress at age 84 is probably "more than you can handle."

"In rare cases, it can lead to actual death," he said. "Most of the time, it's a temporary problem. The thing that's most important for people is, the holidays do bring on a lot of stress. You add on the loss of a loved one and it can feel insurmountable. You'll feel like your heart's broken. If you're going through it, do not ignore it."

Dendy's body had atrophied 2 percent for every day she lay in bed, the doctors told her. It took a summer of rehabilitation and therapy before she could start fully walking and driving again. To this day, she attends therapy at the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center three to five times a week. Her life is back to normal, but she still needs the occasional break to let her heart recuperate.

"If it was not for [Erlanger's] team knowing right away," Dendy said Thursday, before trailing off. "By the time my fiance had made it to Nashville, he had been contacted to get my family to say their final goodbyes.

"So I feel like it's been such a miracle."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.