Healing broken hearts

In 2001, cardiologist Dr. Piero Anversa published a paper with his findings about stem cells and the heart. At that point, his findings were radical and departed from mainstream thinking about how heard disease and other vascular diseases worked and could be treated. Like other studies that push the edges of medical research, the paper caused a reaction that included millions and millions of dollars for additional research. If an effective and non-invasive treatment could be found for cardiovascular disease millions of people could benefit and, in the United States, millions of dollars in profits could be earned by those who held the patents to the treatments. The paper made Dr. Anversa famous.

In the years that followed, Dr. Anversa published or participated in 30 additional studies. His research made the idea that damage to the heart can be effectively repaired with the use of stem cells popular. Hopes rose. Monies continued to flow in for additional research. Then, in 2013, a review of Dr. Anversa’s studies was initiated. Accusations that Dr. Anversa had tweaked data in order to receive funding arose. Harvard University’s medical school and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital were forced to repay about $10 million to the government in order to put to rest accusations of tampering with data. The payment was finally made in April of 2017. By that time the extent of the doctor’s fraud wasn’t fully known.

Recently Harvard University has called for the retraction of 31 studies authored by Dr. Anversa. The extent of the doctor’s fraud is almost unprecedented in scale. Years of work from the labs he was associated with has now been called into question. Other labs that tried and failed to reproduce Dr. Anversa’s findings refuted his claims as early as 2014, but it has taken years for the full extent of the fraud to become public and for Harvard Medical School to completely renounce the papers and studies.

It turns out, once again, that healing broken hearts is a difficult and challenging process and easy fixes simply don’t work.

This past summer one of the books that I read over and over to our granddaughter is a little golden book called “Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop.” Mr. Bell could fix nearly anything and people smiled when they walked past his little shop and saw the sign that said, “Mr Bell’s Fixit Shop I fix everything but broken hearts.” Jill, who lived nearby loved to look around in Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop. One day, when a puppy chewed up Jill’s favorite doll, she burst into the shop in tears. Mr. Bell was tired and hungry after a very busy day, but he promised that he would fix the doll, named Jill, as good as new. And that is exactly what he did. He worked into the night with bits of cloth and paint and yarn and repaired the doll. The next morning, Jill was delighted with the repaired doll. Then one day she insisted that Mr. Bell fix the sign in the window of his shop. Now it says, “Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop I fix everything, even broken hearts.”

The story is a great read for children, and for grandfathers.

If you do an Internet search for books about broken hearts, you will find dozens and dozens of titles. A few of them are about cardiology, but the majority of the books about broken hearts are about emotional pain, like the pain Jill feels when her doll is damaged by the puppy. There are books on recovering from the death of a loved one, books on children and divorce, books on grief and loss and much more all using phrases about broken hearts. Poems and scriptures are offered for comfort. There are novels and children’s books and movies that lean on titles about broken hearts.

Yesterday I watched a short video with four people who arrived at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, just moments after the shooting started. They told of hearing gun shots and of rushing to call 911. They told of the panic they felt when they understood that their small synagogue was under fire. They spoke of what is being called the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history where 11 people died. Rabbi Doris Dunn said that if they had arrived three minutes earlier, they too would have died. With her that morning was Dean Root, who said, during the interview, “The way to respond in a moment of trauma is to reach out.” On the day after the shooting, Rabbi Dunn began to say morning blessings as she usually does. The familiar prayers began, but she discovered that she could not say them. She began to just talk to God directly and said, “God, I am really having trouble here. I cannot pray because I’m broken and I cannot pray.” Seymour Drescher, who also arrived moments after the shooting started said, “You first have to feel the pain in all of its power.”

I am confident that God will bring healing to the community of Tree of Life. But I do not know how or when. I know that people don’t get over trauma such as they have experienced. We get through it, but we don’t get over it. It is never fully in the past. It is always present.

The truth is that there is no easy way to fix a broken heart, whether you are talking about cardiology or emotional trauma. There are times when I wish it were as simple as Mr. Bell delaying his supper to paint a new smile on a broken doll. I wish it were as simple as reading a story to my granddaughter. But I have been around enough trauma to know that it will take a long time for our nation to heal from this horrible crime. And I know, from experience, that a new trauma will come and another story of senseless tragedy will occur and our hearts will be broken again. Layer upon layer of grief is a part of the fabric of our nation’s story.

And we have to “feel the pain in all of its power.”

And “The way to respond in a moment of trauma is to reach out.”

So we will reach out in the midst of the pain even when we don’t have words for our prayers. And we will thank God that we are not the only ones praying.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!