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Australian surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp’s debut book offers insight into a broken heart, through life experiences and research

Loss in translation

Illustration/Aparna Chaudhari

We don’t know what heartbreak feels like. Does it manifest itself in a Kelly Clarkson playlist? Or a rom-com where the protagonist finds hope a few minutes before the end credits? But Dr Nikki Stamp, one of the few female heart and lung surgeons from Australia probes into a consequence that most don’t take seriously. Death. There’s no way to find out how that feels like either. In her debut book Can You Die Of A Broken Heart? [Murdoch Books/Bloomsbury], Stamp’s answer delves into varied topics that range from understanding biology and mental health to maintaining heart health and explaining gender differences. All this, she manages to accomplish without being jargon heavy, so, it isn’t a throwback to the biology textbooks we read in school. And maybe that’s the problem — romanticising the idea of a heartbreak without giving due consideration to the heart for what it essentially is — a pump. Excerpts from an interview.

Early on in the book, you detail your experience of falling in love with the heart as a child. Did you always think of writing a book about it?
I think as a child, I always wanted a career in medicine but I never imagined that I would write a book about it. However, as my career evolved, it became very important to me to be able to teach people about themselves. I really believe that if we educate people and empower them, they can look after their health.

Doctor Nikki Stamp
Doctor Nikki Stamp

Heartbreak is often brushed off as a daft metaphor in popular culture. Your book dispels that notion. Did you intend for your work to tackle that mindset per se?
The perception of how emotions impact our physical health has come an interesting circle. Ancient physicians believed that the heart actually created emotions and then science showed that wasn’t the case, so we stopped thinking about this link. Now, with interesting research, we’ve been able to demonstrate how our emotions impact our physical health. Good health doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and in order to help people be physically healthy, we must nurture their mental and social well-being too.

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Your primary school librarian suggested you read more age-appropriate books [as you say, more Enid Blyton, less anatomy]. Why is human anatomy viewed as incomprehensible? Are we doing enough to introduce the subject to children in a better way?
I don’t think the human body is incomprehensible, I just think that it was probably not usual for a young child to eschew fiction for science. However, I love the way this is changing. I always buy science-based books as gifts for children and there are so many wonderful ones available now. Especially for girls, because it is vital for us to encourage them in to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). I love that people think of fun and exciting ways to make all fields of science accessible for children — after all, it is the building block of everything we do.

You highlight the physiology of stress, and bereavement in relation to the broken heart, each of which are bound by immense stigma. Will a greater conversation around mental health necessarily have a positive impact on heart health?
There is a lot of stigma around mental health or stress in the world but I think the tide is slowly shifting. The time has come to be more open and understanding about these things in their own right. However, as we learn more about how health is highly dependent on all aspects of our lives, it becomes more apparent that taking care of ourselves holistically is necessary.

Drawing from personal experience, do gender differences with regards to heart disease remain an afterthought?
In most countries, there is a significant gap between men and women when it comes to heart disease. Research has shown that women tend to die more often after heart attacks, for example, and a lot of women don’t know that they are at risk. We think of heart disease as a problem that affects our husbands or fathers predominantly. There are a few issues; lack of awareness amongst the community and doctors, lack of specific research and treatment for women. Things have come along in the last 10 years, but we have a long way to go to help save women’s lives.

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What are you working on next?
Well aside from my day job that is obviously pretty time consuming, I’ve had a number of other projects including another episode of Australian ABC science show Catalyst that was recently aired. My next book is well underway and is due to be out later in 2019 and is another book on how we can be healthier.

60 per cent women have three or more preventable risk factors for heart disease. These include smoking, being overweight, physical inactivity, diabetes or high blood pressure.

Research says

Sleep
Contrary to popular belief, studies show that you can’t bank on sleep. Catching up is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. It is best to be consistent.

Female
Dr Stamp points out that heart research has been very male-focused. Especially when male and female hearts are biologically different. A woman who has experienced a heart attack under the age of 50 is twice as likely to die as compared to a man of the same age.

Anxiety
Anxiety and depression often co-exist, and not only can this increase the risk of having a heart attack, but can further the possibility of an attack after the first time.

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