Richard G. Petty, MD

Heart Attacks, Meaning and Relationships


I am a doctor who has spent my career trying to empower people to take control of their lives, to fulfill and exceed their potential and to achieve and maintain vibrant good health. So I have worked my backside off to help people to deal with disease. But the curing of maladies is only half of our task. We also need to learn why things go wrong and what they are trying to teach us. So many of us have become wedded to the idea that illnesses are nuisances to be conquered rather than inevitable parts of life that can help us to grow and develop.

If our search just keeps turning up negatives, “I keep getting sick because I have bad luck/was born under a bad sign/have bad karma,” then you may need a little help from a therapist to help with those negative cognitions.

Here is a remarkably interesting study published in the current issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing, that buttresses years of my own clinical observations: A third of people who suffer myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) discover new meaning to their lives and reconnect with their partner, but others see it as a threat to their well-ordered existence.

Researchers from Switzerland and the United States explored the experiences of 24 couples to see whether the one of them having had a heart attack changed their lives and their relationships. According to the researchers, three distinct behavioral patterns emerged as people tried to cope with a person’s heart attack:
Some said that the heart attack was an important and necessary event which had brought them closer together and transformed their lives.
Others felt fearful and threatened by the fact that they had no control over an unpredictable future.
The last group looked at various possibilities for positive change as a result of the heart attack. But they did not achieve them and felt that they had missed their chance to make things better.

It would be easy to pass off the people in the first group with the positive responses as “rationalizers:” people who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. But that would be a mistake. Severe, particularly life-threatening illness can often have a transformative effect on people an those around them. The key is to provide them with positive psychological and spiritual support.

This research strongly reaffirms the principle that successful recovery from a serious illness means more than eradicating it. It really means dealing not just with the physical, but also the psychological, social, subtle and spiritual aspects of what has happened.

In a cardiac rehabilitation program, if a person is in a stable relationship, it is essential to involve both partners in the program so that support can be tailored to their own individual relationship.

The lead researcher was Dr Romy Mahrer-Imhof, from the Institute of Nursing at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and she had this to say, “For example, counseling could provide these couples with more choices about how to negotiate more intimacy in a relationship in which each partner’s needs and wants are respected…. Group session are also useful as they show people how other couples deal with similar situations, helping them to conquer fear and find new ways of living, despite the illness.”

One of the reasons that I’m so militant about aggressive rehabilitation and involving the family is this. As a very young freshly minted doctor, I was involved in the care of a man who suffered from a very small heart attack at the unusually early age of 28. He made an uneventful physical recovery, but announced to his family that he would never work again, and that sexual intimacy or any other kind of physical activity was now out of the question for him. Overnight, he had become a needless cardiac cripple. As he left the hospital he refused to get dressed in regular clothes, but instead wore pajamas and a bathrobe. He shuffled along like an old man despite the fact that his exercise tolerance was probably as good as mine. He refused all offers of help, would not go to rehabilitation and refused to see a psychologist or counselor. Despite the fact that his heart had recovered completely, he died within a year.

Nobody could have forced him into having treatment, and as a newly qualified doctor I was only the team tadpole.

But if I’d known then what I know now, I doubt that he would have had such a sad outcome.

Enabling the re-integration of the whole person – body, mind, spirit, subtle systems and relationships – is the central core of Integrated Medicine and Healing, Meaning and Purpose.


“No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
–John Donne (English Metaphysical Poet and Divine, 1572-1631)

“Deep within himself man seeks meaning for his life, and tries to fulfill himself in accordance with that meaning.”
–Viktor Frankl (Austrian Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor, 1905-1997)

“When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live.”
–Greg Anderson (American Author and Founder of the Cancer Conquerors Foundation, 1947-)

“Love is the ultimate meaning of everything around us”
— Rabindranath Tagore (Indian Poet, Playwright, Essayist, Painter and, in 1913, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1861-1941)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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One Response to “Heart Attacks, Meaning and Relationships”
  1. The Emotional Side of Heart Attacks

    Boom! Having a heart attack affects your life in that instantaneous moment and for the months immediately following. But as we all know, health is something we must consistently nurture. Yesterday, Dr. Richard Petty discussed a recent study that showed…

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