A wife dies within hours of her husband. A crime victim experiences chest pain and difficulty breathing. They call this phenomenon broken heart syndrome.
The heart muscle can be damaged by a surge of stress hormones triggered by extreme emotional or physical stress. And, one Marietta woman says it happened to her.
Last week, former quarterback Doug Flutie posted on his Facebook page about the back-to-back deaths of his parents, who had been married 56 years. November 20, 2015, Flutie says his father, who'd been ill, had a heart attack and died in the hospital. Less than an hour later, he says, his mother had a suspected heart attack and passed away.
Closer to home, a 33-year old Lilburn mother is in the ICU after collapsing at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where her 10-year old daughter was being treated after being hit and seriously injured by a daycare van. Family members say doctors told them the mother experienced broken heart syndrome.
"It almost sounds not real," says brother-in-law Daniel Davis. "It is something they don't seem to have a great explanation for, other than, in moments of stress, it is possible for your heart to shut down."
Anna Johnson says she'd never heard of broken heart syndrome, until it happened to her three years ago.
She and her husband were working in their East Cobb jewelry store, when a man posing as a customer asked to see a pair of diamond earrings.
"As soon as he got them in his hand, he pulled a gun, and he said, 'Don't move a muscle,'" says Johnson.
"It was very scary. I was afraid to walk to the mailbox. I was afraid to do anything."
Then, two months later, Johnson ended up in the ER, with chest pain and weakness, having what felt like a series of heart attacks.
Her cardiologist Emory University Hospital's Dr. Susmita Parashar says what happened to Johnson is called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome. It can be triggered by the death of a loved one, a difficult breakup, or a major trauma like Johnson experienced.
"The theory or hypothesis is that, due to extreme stress, it's a surge of stress hormones that temporarily damages the heart." explains Dr. Parashar.
While it's not technically a heart attack, it's very similar, says Parashar. She says patients can end up in an ICU with heart muscle failure triggered by extreme physical or emotional stress.
"They may be very sick. Like a heart attack or heart failure patient," says Dr. Parashar. "So, yes, patients should be concerned when they have this diagnosis. The good part is, most of the time, the heart muscle normalizes."
Anna Johnson's heart has fully recovered, and she now pays a lot attention to reducing the stress in her life.
"The main thing is just pay attention to your body,." says Johnson. "Whether you've lost your husband, or had an event that's traumatic to you, pay attention to your body. If something is off, go get a checkup."