A little-known condition mimics a heart attack 

Sentara Medical Group financial counselor Bobbi Lee Rivas thought the worst was behind her when she was robbed at gunpoint on Feb. 4, 2011, at a shopping center she frequented often.

Bobbi Lee Rivas.

Bobbi Lee Rivas.

Rattled but safe, Bobbi returned home, only to feel like she was having a heart attack 30 minutes later.

“I was having an extremely difficult time breathing,” says the now 47-year-old “I yelled for my husband to call an ambulance.”

Although Bobbi remembers her health quickly deteriorating, she says the staff at Sentara Leigh Hospital was able to stabilize her and transfer her to Sentara Heart Hospital.

She hadn’t suffered from any heart-related problems before that day, but she was familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack and the treatment protocol from her job.

Bobbi Lee Rivas recovering in the hospital after a traumatic robbery.

Bobbi Lee Rivas recovering in the hospital.

For seven days she was sedated in a coma, with doctors believing she may have suffered from a severe heart attack.

She was identified as a candidate for a possible heart transplant — before cardiologist Dr. John  M. Herre determined that she had not suffered a heart attack at all: She had Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a rare condition she and many others have never heard of.

It was first recognized in Japan in 1990. The name is often simplified to “stress cardiomyopathy” or “broken heart syndrome.”

“The way it was explained to me is that the condition occurs when there is a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscle, usually due to emotional stress,” Bobbi shares.

With a database of 6,229 Takotsubo cardiomyopathy patients, researchers in 2007 studied 5,558 women and 671 men. They found:

  • Women are 7.5 times more likely to develop broken heart syndrome than men.
  • Women older than 55 are at 2.9 times higher risk of developing the syndrome compared to women younger than 55.
  • Among those younger than 55, women were 9.5 times more likely to develop the syndrome compared to men.

The next step for researchers is to determine if and how hormonal influence might affect Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Its symptoms include:

* Chest pain
* Shortness of breath
* An irregular heartbeat
* A generalized weakness

The symptoms often begin minutes to hours after the person has experienced severe stress.

The stress could be physical — such as high body temperature, dehydration, or low blood sugar — or emotional. The body can produce large amounts of adrenaline to help the person escape a real or perceived danger. With stress cardiomyopathy, researchers believe that the heart is overwhelmed by adrenaline. More research is needed to know exactly how this affects the heart.

The good news is that the condition is treatable when caught in time. It is believed that a person who experiences it once does not necessarily have the same reaction the next time he or she faces an extreme stressor.

After some ups and downs with her recovery, Bobbi is back to work.

“I am so pleased to be a Sentara employee,” she says. “I could not be prouder to be a ‘piece’ of The Sentara Commitments for patients, staff and others I come in contact with… I had many doctors and staff members take care of me, as well as my family, while I was in the hospital. Every hospital staff member, from those in housekeeping to administration, treated me and my family with dignity and grace. They were truly angels walking among us.”

Bobbi has embraced her love of life and expressed her appreciation for everyone in it with something she had never considered before: A tattoo. It’s a small one of Tigger, the loveable bouncing tiger from Winnie the Pooh, on her ankle.

“Mine is crouching and has a butterfly on his nose,” says Bobbi. “My three stepchildren, who helped me so much too, have similar ones to celebrate me getting out of the hospital and getting better.”