The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead has claimed another life: Joe Garcia, the husband of slain teacher Irma Garcia, has died of what relatives described as a “broken heart.”
“I truly believe Joe died of a broken heart and losing the love of his life of more than 25 years was too much to bear,” wrote Debra Austin, Irma Garcia’s cousin, on a GoFundMe page created to raise funds for the family. The couple is survived by their four children.
Joe Garcia died on May 26 after a “medical emergency,” according to Austin’s fundraising page.
Dying from what’s known as broken heart syndrome, also called stress cardiomyopathy, while rare, has been previously documented in people who are grieving a sudden loss of a loved one. It’s most common in women, elderly adults, and people with a history of anxiety or depression.
While the exact causes of broken heart syndrome aren’t clear, scientists suspect that it’s a physical response to intense emotional distress that temporarily interferes with normal heart function. Grief is one emotional stressor that can lead to broken heart syndrome, although the exact cause of the condition isn’t fully understood.
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Stress hormones are thought to play a role. In response to physical or emotional stress, your body releases hormones in your blood like adrenaline, noradrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These hormones temporarily interfere with your heart’s function, experts say.
“When you experience a stressful event, your body produces hormones and proteins such as adrenaline and noradrenaline that are meant to help you cope with the stress,” wrote Ilan Wittstein, MD, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine who researches the impact of stress on the heart, in an online Q&A about broken heart syndrome.
Adrenaline that surges through the body in response to stress can overwhelm the heart muscle, Dr. Wittenstein said. This can cause narrowing inside the small arteries that send blood to the heart, temporarily decreasing blood flow.
This sudden spike in adrenaline can also prevent the heart from beating properly, Wittenstein noted. Normally, the effects of adrenaline caused by broken heart syndrome wear off within a few days or weeks, and people make a full recovery.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome can mimic a heart attack, and can develop within minutes or hours of a stressful event, such as the sudden loss of a loved one, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The most common symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath. Other symptoms can include an irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure that leads to light-headedness, and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs that can make it harder to breathe.
Anyone who has just experienced the sudden loss of a loved one or another stressful, traumatic event should call 911 and seek emergency medical care immediately if they experience chest pain, a very rapid or irregular heartbeat, or shortness of breath, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Doctors can run tests to distinguish broken heart syndrome from a heart attack, which has similar symptoms. About 2 percent of suspected heart attack cases actually may be broken heart syndrome, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
It’s more likely to be broken heart syndrome in patients who suddenly develop symptoms after experiencing extreme physical or emotional trauma. According to the American Heart Association, some key ways broken heart syndrome is different from a heart attack include:
- EKG (a test that records the heart’s electric activity) results don’t look the same as the EKG results for a person having a heart attack.
- Blood tests show no signs of heart damage.
- Tests show no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries.
- Tests show ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle).
- Recovery time is usually within days or weeks, compared with the recovery time of a month or more for a heart attack.
There’s no standard treatment for broken heart syndrome, and most people fully recover within one month, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). Patients are sometimes treated with blood pressure medications such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin-receptor (ARB) blockers, both of which can improve survival odds.
Patients with broken heart syndrome may also need treatment for blood thinners to prevent clots, diuretics to reduce fluid accumulation and improve urine output, and drugs known as vasodilators that make it easier for the heart to pump effectively, according to NORD.
Psychotherapy or medication symptoms of anxiety or depression may also help these patients reduce underlying stress that contributes to broken heart syndrome.