Mending a Broken Heart

January 18 was a sad day for Sonja Hunt-Ballwegg. A close friend lay dying and mutual friends from out of town had come to say goodbye. They gathered at Sonja’s home in Sun City West to visit.

During the visit, Sonja noticed a sharp pain in her left underarm, which quickly spread to her shoulder, then up both sides of her neck and into her ears. She broke out in a cold sweat.

“I knew something was terribly wrong,” Sonja remembers.

She didn’t want to alarm her friends so she excused herself and ran to her bedroom where she took a baby aspirin hoping it would relieve the pain, but it only intensified. “I felt horrible,” she says.

She called for her husband and asked him to call 911.  The paramedics arrived and rushed Sonja to the emergency department at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center.

All the symptoms and an EKG pointed to a massive heart attack. Yet, the tests, including an echocardiogram and a CT scan, ruled out a coronary artery obstruction that would cause a heart attack.

Sonja was admitted to the hospital and was scheduled for a coronary angiogram. The doctors were prepared to insert a stent if necessary. Instead they discovered there was no arterial blockage. The real cause was takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, a condition triggered by a stressful event – such as losing a loved one.

It’s believed that a stressful event and the body’s corresponding release of stress hormones can weaken the heart’s main pumping chamber – the left ventricle, causing it to balloon and lose its normal shape.

Sonja spent two days in the hospital, getting started on a course of treatment, which involved two months of full rest. Before she was discharged from the hospital, a nurse from Sun Health’s Care Transitions program visited and explained how the program works, including that it’s offered at no charge due to the generosity of donors to Sun Health Foundation which funds the program. Sonja agreed to give it a try.

Care Transitions nurse Marianne Del Debbio called on Sonja at her home and spent time reviewing her condition, care plan and what to expect for her recovery.

“Marianne gave me so much information and she made it easy to understand,” Sonja says, noting that pictures helped her to learn what had happened to her heart. “I was so grateful to talk to someone who knew what was going on.”

Marianne also encouraged Sonja to explore ways to reduce stress in her life. Sonja has since discovered that meditation works well for her.

Marianne’s initial visit was followed with weekly check-in calls from other nurses in the Care Transitions program.

Best of all, two months after the episode, Sonja had a test that showed that her heart had returned to its normal function and shape.

“It was like I’d been given a new life,” she says. She gives part of the credit to Marianne, Sun Health’s Care Transitions nurse.

“I learned more from her than I did from some of the doctors.”

Sun Health Care Transitions is uniquely focused on providing patients and family caregivers with the skills, confidence, and tools they need to assert a more active role in their health care.