Literally . . . Scared to Death

Every figure of speech has to come from somewhere, right?

SALT LAKE CITY – Standing outside the city’s newest haunted attraction, Darby DeHart started to second-guess her decision to visit the Fear Factory. “I’ve never been to a haunted house before, so I’m a little freaked out,” the Millcreek teen admitted.  DeHart’s friends, seasoned veterans of the haunted house scene, assured her she would live to tell about experience.

Or would she?  Is it possible to literally be scared to death?  “The answer is ‘Yes,’ ” said Dr. Jeffrey Osborn, an Intermountain Medical Center physician who specializes in heart rhythm disorders. “There are people that have a condition called Long QT syndrome that where emotions can actually lead them to fatal arrythmias,” said Osborn, an electrophysiologist.

While death from fright is possible, that outcome is quite rare because people with this disorder are in a small minority of patients diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, said Osborn. The disorder can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. In some patients, a heart may beat erratically for so long that it can cause sudden death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“It’s an electrical phenomenon when the heart goes into what we call ventricular tachycardia followed by ventricular fibrillation. When ventricular fibrillation occurs, the heart is basically wriggling at 200-plus beats per minute. Unless you’re a humming bird, that’s not very healthy,” Osborn said.

“So you end up dying suddenly if that happens on the street. The immediate treatment, of course, is to shock people out of it. That’s why have AEDs, or the external defibrillators that are prevalent in public places.”

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