Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Heart Trouble

The periodical The Week, in its Health and Science section, carried an article titled: "When a broken heart is fatal." Research suggests that personal trauma such as losing a loved one can literally break your heart, and that you can die from that broken heart. Doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital call the condition ‘broken heart syndrome.' It can be brought on by sudden emotional stress caused by a death in the family, a robbery or even a surprise party. The New England Journal of Medicine says the broken heart syndrome mimics a heart attack, but it is not the same thing. A heart attack occurs when a blood clot in a coronary artery cuts off circulation to the heart muscle. But ‘broken heart syndrome' occurs when a blast of adrenaline stuns the heart muscle. This lends support to the folk wisdom that sorrow or fright can be fatal.

In 1977, Dr. James J. Lynch, M.D., wrote a book entitled The Broken Heart. The subtitle of the book is "The Medical Consequences of Loneliness." He uses statistical data that concentrates on heart disease, but the theme of the book is that brokenness of any sort tends to shorten one's life. There are many ways to get a broken heart. But the brokenness of divorce and ‘family fighting' causes more broken hearts than anything else I know. And it happens so regularly, and often when you would least think it might happen. Dr. Lynch says: "Quite literally we must either learn to live together or face the possibility of prematurely dying alone. Nature uses many weapons to shorten the lives of lonely people. On a statistical basis it simply chooses heart disease most frequently."

The loss of one's mate by divorce, death, or any one of the many ways in which someone can go away, is a life threatening experience. The brokenness that comes from moving, loss of one's job or disappointment (in any of its many forms) can all shorten our lives unless we learn to cope quickly by establishing new and meaningful relationships.

One of my favorite religious writers is Frederick Buechner. When he was 10 years old his father got up early one Sunday morning, closed the garage door, got in the car, turned on the engine, and was asphyxiated before anyone in the family knew what was happening. The elder Buechner was a popular, outgoing person and an honor graduate from Princeton University. The Great Depression made it difficult for him to find and keep a job. He was embarrassed and deeply distressed at not being able to support his family in a way he thought proper and adequate. After a series of professional setbacks, he was broken-hearted and chose to end it all.

For many years, when people asked Frederick how his father died, he would always answer: "He died of heart trouble." Buechner explained that at least it was partially true because his father had a heart and ‘it was troubled.'

We are all vulnerable to the kind of heart trouble that comes of sorrow, loss, loneliness, disappointment, shock, or any one of the many unexpected things that can happen in life. Get ready. It can, and in fact, will happen. The only preventive medicine I know for this kind of heart trouble is a reservoir of faith and a secure set of relationships, both of which must be built over a period of time.

Perhaps you have already been working on this kind of "health insurance", but in the event you have not, let me be so bold as to suggest that you start now. It may be later than you think.

It usually is.