Heart Disease Diagnosis Stressful for Spouses, Too

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May 15, 2000 -- When Miriam Terry, now 76, found out 15 years ago that her husband, George, had heart disease, she didn't know what she was going to do.

"It was very scary for both of us," Terry tells WebMD. "Part of me was saying, 'Thank God we know what it is, and now we will try to deal with it and do everything that we are supposed to do.' But the rest of me was terrified that I was going to lose my soul mate."

Terry says she barely slept at first. She kept turning over to make sure George was breathing, or she lay awake, stressing about what their future would hold. "If he wanted to be physical, I'd wonder if I should back off, no matter how difficult that was, because I was scared it would be too taxing on his heart," she says.

Now, as Miriam and George prepare to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary, she is more comfortable with his illness and the limitations it sometimes places on their lives. Still, "it would have been nice if I had someone to talk with about how I was feeling during that time," she says.


Many spouses of heart disease patients feel the same way. A new study published in the journal Heart & Lung found that 66% of wives of men undergoing cardiac rehabilitation reported that they felt distressed and tense, and had trouble falling asleep, after their husbands were diagnosed with heart disease. Distress was particularly common among the younger wives studied -- those in their early 50s -- than among the older wives, the study found.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers gave more than 200 wives of heart patients standardized tests to measure such things as their distress levels, heart disease-related stressors, and coping strategies. The results showed that the wives had worries about treatment, recovery, and prognosis; about their husbands' moodiness; and about when and if their husbands could return to work and sex.

"The most important message is that heart disease affects not only the patient, but the family members as a unit," researcher Patricia O'Farrell, RN, BScN, who conducted the study, tells WebMD. O'Farrell is clinical manager for the Heart Institute Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre at the University of Ottawa.


"Distress is a normal reaction to a serious event like a heart attack," she says. "Ideally, there needs to be help for family members and spouses so they can adjust to heart disease."

The spouses of patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, especially younger women, should be screened for distress, O'Farrell and her colleagues conclude in their article. "Those in distress should be offered interventions focused on assisting them to deal with specific stressors related to their experience," they write.

Stress management techniques, and general counseling aimed at teaching coping skills such as problem solving, may help spouses, they write.

As it is, family members of heart patients receive little counseling or help in coping from doctors or other health care professionals. A previous study found that how well a patient copes physically and mentally with heart disease depends on his or her spouse's ability to cope with the situation. What's more, research has shown that heart patients with strong support from family members do better than those without such support, the authors of the new study point out.


Leona Hudson, a 53-year-old resident of Kemptville, Ontario, was fortunate enough to receive counseling when her husband, Dave, 57, was first diagnosed with heart disease.

Hudson was shocked when doctors told her that Dave needed a triple bypass, the surgical removal of blockages in three heart arteries. "He had never been sick, so it was a complete shock when we found out," she tells WebMD. "Now the doctors say it is a result of a genetic condition, so our two sons will need to be tested."

The hospital where Dave received surgery offered her counseling and other services to help her cope with her husband's illness and what it means to her and the rest of the family, she says.

Her advice to other spouses is to take advantage of any counseling services the hospital has to offer, and to "talk to whomever will listen and let it all out; don't keep anything inside."

Vital Information:

  • A new study finds that wives of heart disease patients experience distress, especially younger wives in their early 50s.
  • Learning stress management techniques and coping skills may help such spouses.
  • Earlier research has shown that patients with spouses who cope well with the disease do better physically and emotionally.
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