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​Joined together in love, and in death

Researchers says people would suffer from sudden onset of heart muscle weakness and heart failure after being subjected to emotional trauma - like the death of a spouse - may suffer from Broken-Heart Syndrome, which can be fatal
Can you die from a broken heart? 04:55

To be heartbroken is nothing more than a figure of speech ... or is it? Here's Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

In 10 years at the Tampa Bay Times, Andrew Meacham has written more than a thousand obituaries.

"If you drill down far enough, there's always a story," he said. "Everybody's got one."

And sometimes two people share the same story.

"It's not mathematically probable that couples should die together," said Meacham. "But when it does happen, there's something beautiful about it."

Recalling one such couple, Jimmie and Bettie Wise, makes him choke up a bit even today.

"They were in the same room together, at the end, in the nursing home," Meacham said. "The bed rails [were] turned down so that they could hold hands.

"And he had said before he died that he wanted to go help Jesus get ready for her. And then, four days later, she died."

They shared their love, their lives, and ultimately their 2010 obituary -- a retired railroad engineer and a homemaker, married 63 years.

An undated photo of Bettie and Jimmie Wise. Married 63 years, they died four days apart. CBS News

Their only child, Sandy Brooks, still marvels at the real-life love story in the pages of her parents' photo album.

When asked if it was love at first sight, Brooks said yes.

And the love letters seem to confirm it:

"I hope and pray every night in my prayers that we shall have a long lifetime of happiness growing old together with even deeper love."

They met in 1945. He was 23, she was 20. Soon they married.

"They were inseparable," said Brooks. "They were playful. They had water gun fights. And in the summer they rolled back the carpet in the house and they put phonograph records on and they danced."

And they kept on dancing, through 37 years of retirement on a Florida beach. They were in step right to the end.

Her health declined, and his health declined when hers took a turn for the worse.

"I think they both died as they lived," said Brooks. "He made the decisions, he went first. She followed."

Meacham said, "I think there's something universal, something timeless about wanting to go out together. Romeo didn't go up to the tomb and say, 'Well, this saddens me. But I really believe I can still have a useful and productive life'! That might have been the more reasonable thing to say. But he didn't do that."

You may think that devoted spouses dying within days or even hours of each other is just the stuff of overwrought romance novels. But medical researchers will tell you: Think again.

When asked if it's really possible to die from a broken heart, Dr. Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, said the answer is yes. "Not only is it possible, but it happens. We've seen it happen here."

Dr. Wittstein published the definitive study on what is called "Broken-Heart Syndrome" in 2005 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"We saw that people were coming in with sudden onset of heart muscle weakness and heart failure after being subjected to some kind of emotional trauma," he said. "And the first few people that we saw, it was usually death of a loved one."

He estimates 10,000 Americans may experience it every year.

Unlike a heart attack, Broken Heart Syndrome is NOT triggered by clogged arteries, but often by a serious stress, like losing the love of your life.

"What we believe happens is that the body produces a large amount of the stress hormones, like adrenaline. When produced in large amounts, it can actually be somewhat toxic to the heart."

Believe it or not, you can SEE a broken heart on an ultrasound. Dr. Wittstein said the signs include very low blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and fluid in your lungs. "You could die from this problem, absolutely," he said.

The condition is treatable -- usually patients recover, but sometimes not. There's no way to know if the Wises suffered Broken Heart Syndrome, but Dr. Wittstein says he wouldn't be surprised.

"There are other, less romantic reasons why spouses may die when they lose a spouse," he said. "But there's no question that we've seen this same type of thing where a person really just sort of loses the will to go on and passes quickly after that."

And for the Wises' daughter, there is no other possible explanation. "That would be it," Brooks said. "Why go on? This is how we're going to finish it."

"Although that's sad," said Meacham, "it's also a reflection of the choice that they made to be with that person forever. 'Till death do them part."

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