Woman’s heart literally ‘breaks’ after her dog dies
Joanie Simpson, a 61-year-old woman from Texas, woke up one morning with a backache and severe chest pain. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors were expecting to treat her for a heart attack, but she received a totally different diagnosis. Simpson was suffering from a broken heart, which was brought on by the death of her beloved dog.
The medical term is takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a cardiovascular event that mimics a heart attack by causing the patient to experience chest pain and shortness of breath, and research has shown that more than 90 per cent of cases befall postmenopausal women. Because this usually follows a traumatic experience like the loss of a loved one, it has been dubbed “broken heart syndrome.”
“I was close to inconsolable,” Simpson said to The Washington Post about the death of her Yorkshire terrier, Meha. “I really took it really, really hard.”
According to her case, which was detailed in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, her stress had already been building with bad news from her family (her son was facing back surgery and her son-in-law lost his job), real estate woes and caring for a deteriorating Meha who suffered from congestive heart failure. Meha’s death was the proverbial straw.
“The kids were grown and out of the house, so she was our little girl,” she said. “When you’re already kind of upset about other things, it’s like a brick on a scale. I mean, everything just weighs on you.”
One of Simpson’s doctors, Abhishek Maiti, said her case was especially remarkable because it was a “very concise” example of “broken heart syndrome.” However, experts note this is also a perfect illustration of how deep the human-animal bond can run.
“Pet grief is a very important phenomenon to understand from everyday people’s perceptions as well as from a mental health perception,” says Dr. Aubrey Fine, a psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University. “For some people, the connection with their animal is so significant that it’s hard to mend the hole left after their loss. The grief and bereavement process is very complex.”
Because many people see their pets as part of their family, he says others should be cognizant of the relationship and respect the value of it. Especially since humans who care for ailing pets are sometimes faced with very difficult choices regarding their health and well-being.
“The compassion challenges that we experience with watching a human loved one pass away can be different, particularly when it comes to animal medicine,” he says. “How much resource are we willing to put into keeping our animals alive?”
Although he says that grieving the loss of a pet is more socially acceptable today than it was 50 years ago, it’s still difficult for people to understand how profound the loss can be. There’s still a tendency to sympathize with platitudes.
“As much as we’ve moved to respect the human-animal interaction, and science is catching on by suggesting that animals are good for our physical and mental well-being, we’re still not at the point as a society where we all get it,” Fine says. “Sometimes, we take the loss of a pet so significantly that it can bring significant emotional and physical pain to a person, and it will really have a negative impact on their lives.”
Simpson has recovered from what she calls her “episode” and has welcomed a new addition to her family: a cat named Buster. She hasn’t ruled out getting another dog, but she’s waiting to make the right connection.
“It is heartbreaking. It is traumatic. It is all of the above,” she said. “But you know what? They give so much love and companionship that I’ll do it again.”
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