Former NBA dancer recovers from ‘broken heart syndrome’ and heart transplant

Reporter: Amy Oshier
Published: Updated:
Brittany Thornton

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and Brittany Thornton survived this one like she has all the ones before it. No small feat given she once nearly died of a broken heart.

“It almost felt like my heart was on the outside of my body it was pumping so fast,” Thornton said, “They come in, all the white coats, say you have advanced heart failure. And I look around like, are they talking to me? Because there’s no possible way. And that’s what they diagnosed me with.”

Dr. Viviana Navas is a heart failure specialist at NCH’s heart institute; “Medically we call it a stress cardiomyopathy.”

Navas has seen it before. In common terms, the condition is called “broken heart syndrome”.

People who undergo extreme emotional trauma may develop sudden, severe failure of the heart muscle.

“It’s associated with a very stressful situation,” Navas “So somebody who was doing well, and then all of a sudden hears really bad news, or goes through a very stressful situation very acutely, then develops distress, cardiomyopathy.”

Thornton’s heartbreaking story began like a fairytale. She was a 25-year-old dancer for the NBA.

During halftime of a Charlotte Hornets game in 2019, her boyfriend proposed right on center court. The joyous video went viral.

Later, the couple ultimately broke up, and that breakup led to a health crisis for Thornton.

She said, “You make a commitment; you make a promise to someone that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with them. And if that doesn’t turn out, you know, it’s kind of reroutes you and it startles you. I mean, rewires your whole nervous system, I’d say.”

Brittany Thornton

Being young and healthy, she ignored the symptoms of heart failure: the chest pressure, palpitations, and weakness. By the time she sought medical help, her heart was distressed beyond repair.

“They gave me a heart catheterization, they saw that my functionality, the heart was 15%. It was twice it had enlarged twice the size that it was supposed to.”

She was put on the list for a transplant.

At 25 years old, an external device pumped her heart until she could get a new one. Six weeks later, Thornton had an operation to replace her ailing heart.

“The surgery was right at I think 10 hours,” she recalled. “And you know, you sign the waiver, you sign your life over, you might wake up, you might not.”

Diagnosing broken heart syndrome primarily comes from excluding other causes.

Tests look for blockages in the arteries and use an EKG to determine whether the patient suffered a heart attack. A telling feature is a distorted lower left ventricle.

“Right after the transplant, they took the natural heart and pathologists, that’s what they found. So the left ventricle had swelled so much. It was basically like a rubber band, it couldn’t beat once it’s stretched out, it can’t go back to its natural form.”

Brittany Thornton

The diagnosis used to be rare, people even doubted the existence of it. Since the pandemic, stress-induced cardiomyopathy has surged.

Dr. Navas said, “I see at least 10 to 15 cases a year, and is more commonly seen in woman, older age woman.”

Thornton is an exception in many ways. Most times people get help immediately, and the condition is treated before it leads to heart failure. Being young and strong, she never suspected her heart was dying. Three years later, she’s up and running. With a grateful heart.

“I wasn’t born with it,” Thornton added, “But it’s, you know, forever woven in who I am as a person.”

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