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How son’s behavior hurts mother’s stressed heart and sparks a news feature

How son’s behavior hurts mother’s stressed heart and sparks a news feature

Picture of Wendy Wolfson
(Image courtesy of Wendy Wolfson)
(Image courtesy of Wendy Wolfson)

This year the NPR health desk has been covering stress and women's health. The ability to manage stress can have profound effects on one’s health, as I found out to my chagrin. I had pitched another radio essay: the experiences I had in getting my son, who started showing disruptive behavior in first grade, appropriate help. But I found myself writing my editor from a hospital bed, thinking I was having a heart attack. It was like being propelled into another dimension, wearing only a backless hospital gown.

I had developed a rare condition (affecting 2 percent of heart patients) that is associated with extreme stress. Once I was out of the hospital, my editor helped me shape the story by guiding me to pick an event – the Monday school meeting – around which to arrange the narrative structure of events. 

Writing about one's own children is difficult because one has to safeguard their privacy. I wanted to address this topic, since I had gotten to know many people who had kids with disabilities and were struggling to find ways to help them. Some would just move their children around from school to school. I chose to write about my son but to be general about the details. It helped that my children have a different last name than I do.

In budget-strapped California, parents have to advocate for their children. We were conscious of the effects our son's behavior were having not only on our family, but on the ability of other children to learn in class. But we felt it important to understand why he was behaving the way he was, and to figure out effective ways to deal with him. I looked at studies and searched for evidence-based interventions. For perspective on his school’s actions, I talked with professionals in another school district about how they would approach a kid with similar issues. For contacts and education about the issues and educational law I consulted the United Cerebral Palsy Association and SENG, an organization that deals with the emotional needs of gifted children.

When the article came out, several parents wrote me about the experience of dealing with a kid with a disability or behavioral issues. Many women wrote me that they too had episodes of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, and that frequently it was diagnosed as something else. It disproportionately affects women past menopause. There may be up to four clinical variants of the condition. It is serious, but if one survives the initial episode, the long-term prognosis is good and the heart can heal within a month to a year. As follow-up care, patients are prescribed beta blockers and aspirin. One of the most effective ways of preventing the condition is just regular exercise to dissipate stress. The reason why some people develop this condition is unclear; there are a number of theories ranging from a heightened emotional response to stress to ebbing estrogen. I think what precipitated this in my case was receiving a series of letters that had been circulated around my children’s school in a campaign to get him ejected.  

Read Wendy Wolfson’s original story, published by NPR: "I Though It Was Just Stress, Until It Broke My Heart"

The process of finding solutions was empowering, but I made the mistake of ignoring my own health. The mind-body connection is powerful. Stress itself can fester, and eventually overshadow the original problem. A researcher who conducted clinical trials told me that her group found that cancer patients who had counseling to deal with stress lived longer than those who didn’t. 

My personal account is also a broader story, considering that in a family where the kid has a disability or is repeatedly sent home for being disruptive, there has to be support or backup care on call. I didn’t have many affordable alternatives. Without that help, it’s too easy for stress to overwhelm the lives of families who are struggling just to stay afloat.

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