Close to the Heart

By Heather Buschman, Ph.D.
August 27, 2010

Hello! Heather here, science writer at Sanford-Burnham and frequent contributor to Beaker. We’re going to do something a little different today. I’m still going to discuss some of the cool research going on here at Sanford-Burnham, but since it affects me personally, this time it’ll be in the context of my own story…

Early one morning eleven years ago, I was visiting some friends while enjoying a break from college, when my dad called to tell me that my mom had died. It was sudden and completely unexpected. She was only 46 years old, healthy and seemingly full of life. My mom just went to work one evening (alone on the late shift) and never came home. As my dad tried to explain to me at the time, she just collapsed and that was it – nobody else was there to know what really happened. It was devastating to me and my family and our lives were forever changed. Not only was she gone, but we never had much of an explanation as to why. What caused her death and could it have been prevented? This was one of the hardest parts for me as both a daughter and as a young scientist. I read the medical examiner’s report myself. It wasn’t a heart attack and it wasn’t a stroke. The cause of death was simply listed as ‘heart failure’.

That still frustrates me. As I’ve pointed out to countless people in the years since, with all we know about the human body, it’s surprising that cause of death can still be a mystery. ‘Heart failure’ just seems like a catch-all phrase – an easy thing to say when there’s no other explanation. After all, isn’t that what kills us all in the end?

I now work at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, where heart disease is a major focus of research at the new facility in Lake Nona, Florida. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Daniel Kelly, heart disease researcher and scientific director in Lake Nona, where I discovered that part of his life’s work is to ease my frustration.

He once said something that echoes exactly what I’ve been thinking all these years: “There are different kinds of cancer, and we are very sophisticated in describing them. But in heart failure, we lack the sophistication to distinguish between different disease types and causes. We just call it heart failure.”

Dr. Kelly explained to me that there isn’t just one heart disease – there are many different ‘flavors’ that can result from a heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes or some other as-yet unidentified cause.  Now he and other researchers are finding that the molecular mechanisms leading to each type of heart disease are different. For example, the heart has an incredible capacity to switch back and forth between burning sugar and burning fats to generate energy, and that balance gets shifted differently depending on the type of heart disease. Whereas the diabetic heart sucks up fat, the hypertensive heart prefers sugars. They believe that clearly defining each distinct pathway to heart disease and heart failure will help them develop new therapies tailored to the specific cause. In fact, Dr. Kelly is now building a whole new program at Sanford-Burnham’s Lake Nona campus to do just that.

There is comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who thinks we need more answers as to what we mean by ‘heart failure’. Now I am getting older and have a daughter of my own, and so I begin to think of my own mortality. I hope that as we gain more information on how to live our lives and how to treat our sick, I will have many more years with her than I had with my own mother.

Thanks for listening.


In loving memory of Cynthia Jean Maisey
July 14, 1953 – October 19, 1999

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About Author

Heather Buschman, Ph.D.

Heather was an SBP Communications staff member.



  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I also lost my mother in 2006, almost the same exact situation but they said she had a heart-attack. It has made no sence to me b/c she never had any “known” problems.

  2. Dear Heather,

    Yes,I understand perfectly what you are talking about. Eighteen months before, I lost my younger sister suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 37. She did not have any history of heart disease and was perfectly healthy when I met her 2 months before the incident.
    That day,she did visit her GP in the evening when she felt discomfort in the chest which she described as ‘tension’. An EKG was taken which was reported as normal. So he concluded that it was due to ‘stress'(husband was travelling and kids were having exams) and advised her to take rest and even prescribed anti anxiety medication to relax. She decided to go to her sister in law’s house with the kids to stay there overnight. Had dinner,felt the same tension kind of feeling again,but no body thought that it was the early symptom of an impending cardiac event. She went to sleep and never woke up;
    The diagnosis was cardiac arrest due to unknown cause as the autopsy didn’t show anything… Being a doctor, I started thinking about all sorts of possibilities. Later on, I heard that there was evidence of a seizure/aspiration which made me believe that she had an episode of Ventricular Fibrillation before the arrest. But what caused the VF? There were no signs of infarction/thrombosis or embolism.

    About 3 months later,my brother in law(my sis’s husband) sent me a scanned copy of the final report with the result of microscopic histopathology which said ” Right coronary artery small, and the right coronary ostium narrow”. I called the pathologist to find out about it and we concluded that the VF was caused by coronary insufficiency due to this anatomical abnormality. I searched the literature and found a few articles reporting similar autopsy findings. I used those articles to convince my parents that she was living with this hidden time bomb in her body…..

    Life can never be the same for us. We lost our lovely angel without any warning… yes,she had hypertension during her pregnancy; but after the delivery it became normal. …She was the most active person in the family,and never complained of any symptoms for us to suspect anything….

    Heather,thank you for sharing your story; I understand perfectly what you had gone through during those days,while searching for answers with teary eyes….


  3. I lost my father last month due to stroke and your story of losing your mother touched me, I can totally relate and understand your pain. I know that we are here for a reason and we face all these experiences and they have a meaning. Heather try to find that strength in yourself and focus your goals to fulfill the purpose we were born for. Good luck with your research

  4. Heather, I’m very sorry for the death of your mother. Thank you for telling her (and your) story.

    The lack of understanding about different kinds of heart disease is of great interest to me since I had a heart attack in mid-August. I’ve learned a lot about cardiac medicine from the inside out, you might say. I didn’t even know I was having one, because I didn’t have chest pains — just strong pain and numbness in the left arm. After very good care, I’m feeling a lot better, and am more aware of my health.

    I’d like to follow up about this for the North County Times when I get back to work, after Labor Day.



  5. Heather Buschman on

    Thank you all for the kind comments and for sharing your own stories! I’m so sorry to hear that so many have experienced the same feelings of frustration with the unknown, on top of the same sense of grief.

    @Jissy, I’m especially impressed by the depth of research you did following your own loss. I never really looked into it that much at the time of my mother’s death and never even thought of doing my graduate thesis work in heart disease research (I chose infectious disease instead). ‘Heart failure’ just seemed so vague that I didn’t know what research I could personally pursue that might be applicable to my mother’s memory. That’s why I was so struck by Dr. Kelly’s words – there really are scientists out there trying to figure it all out.

    Anyone else have a story to share?

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