No cure for a broken heart

The assertion in my heading comes to us via the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography, via the Daily Telegraph, via the Drudge Report. Which is to say, by the usual route from the labcoats through the tabloids. We, or at least that portion of us who take our news on the wing, sans prayer, are told that victims of “tako-tsubo cardiomyopathy” (named for a Japanese octopus trap that resembles a broken heart) may never recover from their vasospasms or infarctions — which, with a little journalistic licence, we might associate with being jilted in love.

Of course the whole thing is nonsense, as one discovers by reading the originating article with attention. The truth is, almost everyone whose left ventricle suddenly dilates, in a way that brings the trap image to a Japanese cardiologist’s mind — though he might look at first like a goner — will recover from it in a few days, and is as likely to live to a ripe old age as the next ippan-jin. Few are permanently impaired. He will probably be a she, since the condition most commonly affects women, so that with a little more journalistic licence we may cite the old stereotype that women suffer more acutely from broken hearts. (And like most ancient stereotypes, it is almost certainly true.)

Here we had been thinking of a broken heart as a spiritual rather than material condition. Because it is. And like most intense spiritual conditions, it may have physical consequences, and some of the victims drop dead. This is especially the case with those who hurl themselves off bridges, auto-defenestrate, or leap over cliffs; though other medical emergencies are possible.

Modern science, delivered through the tabloids, will have the latest word. It delivers what was once detected only in the stars, or by casting straws. (Which is not to mention the daisy-plucking method.) “Oh look, science!” the ignorant reader may conclude, without having assimilated details. The “discovery” then spreads by word of mouth.

One cannot really blame the scientists for doing their research. I only blame them for publishing it.

My own heart has been broken several times — several dozen if I count the more passing fancies — without any perceptible cardiovascular complications. It began when I was fifteen. No, it began when I was six. For all I know, it may happen again. Perhaps I have broken a few hearts, myself; men can be terribly clumsy.

But this is to make light of the grief some others have endured, such as the loss of a mate, or of a child. I shall never forget the look on the face of a young Irishman, whose fiancée had been (quite literally) backed over by a truck. No witty expression came to mind. Or rather one did, about how this had the makings of a classic C&W song, but I was able to suppress it.

Today, that man has been happily married (to another woman, I should explain) for two score years, and the lyrics that come to mind are those of A. E. Housman. Though I am sure some part of his heart remains broken. We pass through our lives with broken parts, that time can never mend.

There are moments when people want to die, and the human body will sometimes oblige them. It has a broad repertoire of ways to do this. It probably works upon some pre-existing flaw: the chain usually breaks at its weakest link. We ought to know that by now, after so many millennia of human experience. We ought not to need any scientific studies. Medicine can focus on repairing the weak link, if that is still possible. Only elderly and wise family doctors could ever hope to do better.