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How Poetry Broke My Heart

On June 2, 2010, I was giving a poetry reading at the faculty club at Columbia University Medical Center in New York as part of their “Literature & Medicine” series. I still have the list of poems I read that day, poems that spoke of my work as a nurse practitioner. One poem described my examination of an abused woman; another recounted the experience of a young teen, raped by her sister’s boyfriend. Other poems concerned the mysteries surrounding death as well as the joys of healing.

Somewhere halfway through the reading, I developed what is aptly called crushing chest pain. I kept reading, even though as a nurse I knew I should stop, ask for help, call 911. During the Q&A after the reading, I felt light-headed and clammy, but I had no risk factors for heart disease, and I didn’t want to end up in a hospital away from home.

Maybe it was just heartburn, I told myself.

A few days later, in the cardiac cath lab of my local hospital, I was diagnosed with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TTC), also known as broken heart syndrome, a temporary malfunctioning of the left ventricle that mimics a heart attack, but isn’t one. Had poetry broken my heart?

After a few months of recovery, I continued to read my poems in a variety of venues, always with some anxiety, but without chest pain or a recurrence of the TTC–until March 10, 2022, when my friend Irene and I were giving a joint reading at a local library, a reading billed as “Caregivers Reading Poems about Caregiving.”

Our plan was to switch off with one another, reading four poems at a time, a call and response to see how our poems–hers about being a therapist, mine about being a nurse–might intertwine and inform how we care for both mind and body.

As I began to read my second poem, about my experience as a student in a psych hospital, there it was again after twelve years—that same crushing chest pain. This time the pain was more insistent; and this time I also foolishly continued to read, only excusing myself during the Q&A to go to the ER.

Once again diagnosed with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, I wondered if poetry really could break a heart.

Now, again in recovery, I understand a bit more about what was happening as a backdrop to both of those poetry readings, to both episodes of my broken heart.

The first time, my daughter and her family were getting ready to move to another state, a thousand miles away. Perhaps it was that sorrow, combined with the stress of reading poems, that triggered the first episode.

And the second time? Reading in March, my subconscious was quite aware that the following month, April, would be the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s untimely death from breast cancer in that other state so far away. But why should these events gather and wound during poetry readings?

When I read poems that have originated in my real-life experiences as a nurse, I feel again the emotions that led to the poems’ creation. Hiding deep in my heart, the original traumas endured by my patients and the wages of intense caregiving surface with every reading. Those emotions, felt anew, and combined with the present stresses of my life, might create the perfect storm, the outpouring of catecholamines that could twice shock and injure my already vulnerable heart.

The risk of a second recurrence of Takotsubo is less than 10 percent. Having beaten the odds, I wonder how likely a third occurrence might be. The doctors don’t know.

There’s still much to be discovered about this syndrome–why it happens mostly to women, why it resolves, what might trigger it again. The best advice is not to do what you were doing when you felt that first chest pain, that first hint of a broken heart. Sometimes that’s impossible–we can’t predict when loved ones will die, when relationships will end, when viruses and wars will turn our lives around. But I can stop reading my poems aloud.

I’ve already cancelled the five readings I’d agreed to give over the next few months, and I won’t be planning any more. I’ll still write poems; maybe some will be published.

You won’t see me at the podium now, but I’ll be in the audience, applauding the poets who are, as I know, offering poems that just might break a tender heart.

Cortney Davis is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Daughter and I Hear Their Voices Singing: Poems New & Selected. Her honors include an NEA Poetry Fellowship and six Book of the Year awards from the American Journal of Nursing. “When I began working as a nurse, I was soon moved to write poetry and prose about my experiences with patients, with the universal conditions of suffering and recovery. I found that sharing transcendent moments in caregiving with others might help open and heal, if not the body, then the heart.”


33 thoughts on “How Poetry Broke My Heart”

  1. Dear Cortney, Thank you for the courage and beauty in How Poetry Broke My Heart. One cannot read it, savor it, bring it into one’s own heart, without being changed. I will read it again and again, knowing I’ll weep, knowing I’ll again be grateful to you for your brave words.

    1. Dear Carol, thank you for your kind and caring comment. Your thoughts and connection are much appreciated.

  2. Dear Cortney, I just read your extraordinary, beautiful, brave essay, which I then read out loud to my husband, Greg, though it was hard because I was crying so much. I cannot begin to tell you how moved I am by this essay, by the beauty of the writing, by the pain of your loss of your lovely daughter, which you wrote about with such honesty, passion and courage in your last exquisite book of poetry. Thank you for writing this essay for us all in this time when our hearts are breaking. love, Edwina

    1. Dear Edwina, thank you for your comments filled with love and comfort. Your support is especially welcomed, you were one of my first teachers, showing me what words could become, the lives and memories they could hold, the way a poem could become the perfect vessel for our human experiences. Sending you love and gratitude.

  3. Dear Cortney:
    Thank you for this moving and emotional piece. I get so much from your poetry and always look forward to your books.

    1. Thank you, Ron! Thank you for all your years of support and help. I hope you are well and finding joy in these crazy times.

  4. Pingback: How Poetry Broke My Heart – Pulse | word pond

  5. Thank you for this fascinating article and for the beautiful poems that you write. Although I had never heard of this syndrome, I can understand that reciting the poem about a traumatic event could trigger such a response. So moving.

  6. Rosemary McGee

    Thank you for your story of Takosubo, Courtney. 10 years ago, I too experienced and episode of Takosubo. My son had shared 2 days prior that his marriage was in serious trouble. I was heartbroken but also became enraged – I was angry at him and my daughter-in-law and then angry at myself for my own marriage breakup 40 years earlier. I blamed myself for the generational repetition that was playing out before me.
    I too am a poet and wrote about this time and tragedy. I recovered but am aware of the rage that can stun my heart if unchecked.

    1. Thank you for sharing your broken heart story, Rosemary. Grief and anger affect our bodies in so many ways. It’s a puzzle why for some these intense emotions lead to Takotsubo but not for others. I hope there can be, soon, peace in your family and in your heart.

  7. Henry Schneiderman

    This is a most moving and meaningful exploration, painful and yet positive. I have admired and savored your poetry for many years and this essay led to visiting your website which I recommend to other Pulse readers. Thank you for all you have done, despite the cost you describe so vividly; and yes, please take care of yourself with the same gentleness, skill and insight you bestow on others.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments. I think we always wonder when we put our words or poems out into the universe . . . where do they go, and who do they touch? Thank you for letting me know that some reached you. I’m grateful!

  8. Thank you for sharing this harrowing personal experience of the power of poetry. Wishing you a full recovery and many more poems.

    1. Cortney,
      Thank you for writing this essay and educating us about this unusual medical condition. Knowing you as the wonderful, deep, caring poet and person you are, it strikes me that broken hearts might be the poet’s special territory.
      Please take good care of yourself. I look forward to more of your work, however it is presented.

      1. Dear Nancy, thank you for your comments! I agree that broken hearts might be the poet’s territory, a country also shared by all writers who offer their souls, all artists who expose theirs on the canvas. You share your soul and your heart beautifully in your writing and in your teaching.

  9. I just loved this writing, Cortney. As a former cancer nurse, now physician with almost 50 years in the medical field, the heartbreak is real. And with such tragic closeness as your daughter’s story, even more so. Keep writing, keep pouring it out please. Thank you for this.

  10. Thank you for this, Cortney. Your poetry and your voice have been so much a part of my love of giving voice and giving ear to those who tend to the ill and to those who care for them.

  11. Thank you, Courtney for your beautiful, and pardon the pun, your heartfelt story. I have followed your work for years. I’ll look for your new poems.

  12. Beth Ackerson M.D.

    Courtney, you read and taught at several Lit in Medicine/Healing Art of Writing conferences I attended. Your poetry books, your voice, so compelling. Your daughter’s move and death heartbreaking. May you surrender to your own healing and being, within the natural world that holds us all.
    Blessings, Beth

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