Mark vs Cancer

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Chagas Disease and the Exploding Heart

When I lived in Brazil, long before I knew anything about medicine, I met a man who told me the most ridiculous story.  He said his father had recently died of an exploding heart.  I asked how such a violent thing could happen.  It seems, he said, that years ago his father had reached behind a wood pile and had been bitten by a poisonous bug, the bicho barbeiro, or barber bug.  The bite had healed and the bug had been long forgotten . . . until seven years later, when the poor man's heart suddenly exploded, and he died. 

Yeah, right, I thought.  Another Brazilian medical myth, like their old wives' tale that if you eat hot cake and then walk in the cold rain, you will drop over dead--BOOM--like that.

But then I went to medical school and learned a thing or two.  I learned about Chagas disease, an illness endemic to Central and South America which infects over ten million individuals.  This disease is caused by a parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, that is passed to humans after they are bitten by the Reduvid Bug.  This dreaded bug, also known as the blood sucking assassin bug--or in Brazil, the bicho barbeiro-- lives in woodpiles, and after it bites its victims and sucks their blood, it defecates on the host's body.  The feces contaminate the open wound, and thus the parasite is directly transmitted into the blood stream.  A slow, insidious infection of human tissue ensues, most specifically of the heart.  After a quiescent period that can last seven or more years, the infected heart muscle shows signs of weakening, typically leading to congestive heart failure, with symptoms such as fatigue, swelling, shortness of breath and chest pain.  But in some cases, the heart develops an aneurysm--a ballooning weakness of a heart chamber--which can spontaneously rupture in previously asymptomatic individuals.

Or in other words, an exploding heart.

Have you ever been to South or Central America?  Mexico, perhaps?  Were you bitten by an insect while there?

If so, you could have Chagas disease, and you might not even know it until the day you are taking the trash out and your heart pops like an overfilled water balloon.  The take home lesson here is that life is short and unpredictable, and yours could be in imminent danger. 

It's enough to make you want to forget it all and eat some cake. 

Just be sure to stay out of the rain.

Come check out this and other medical calamities that could be putting your life in danger at


Tyler said...

Thanks a lot. I already had enough to worry about. Now this

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Anonymous said...

Is there any other way this can happen...when combined with, say, cancer? I swear i saw a tennis ball sized object ricocheting around in her chest minutes before she died...if you dont know thats fine i am meeting a lot of dead ends.

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