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Doctors say dying of a ‘broken heart’ can happen

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MOLINE, Illinois — He was her everything, she was his treasure. Vernon and Catherine Ryckeghem were high school sweethearts.

"They just were really never apart," says son Rick Ryckeghem.

Vernon and Catherine's kids say the couple died of a broken heart.

"I know it's not science and it's not medical, but he had always been there for her, and he couldn't let her go without him waiting there," says Rick.

Doctors with Genesis Health System say dying from a broken heart really does happen, but maybe not the way we imagine.

The condition is called stress induced cardiomyopathy, also known as Broken Heart Syndrome. It's usually seen in older patients when major physical or mental stress leads to heart failure. The muscle becomes weakened or stunned and causes the left ventricle to change shape.

"About three-fourths of those patients have had some sort of stresser before, so there is some link we think between that happening and having some sort of stresser whether it's physical or profound emotional stresser. So certainly the death of a loved one would be a profound emotion stresser that could lead to that," says Dr. Erinn Ayres, who specializes in geriatric patients.

The Ryckeghem's say the stresser for Vernon was when hospice brought a hospital bed into their home for Catherine.

Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 80s. It was when the cancer spread to her liver when things really went down hill.

"You could just see Dad change. He put blinders on because in his heart, I think he knew then that Mom was not going to be here much longer," says daughter Jan Rasso.

That night, Catherine slept in the hospital bed in her room. Vernon insisted on sleeping on his recliner in the living room.

"He said he had to go to the bathroom. I probably should have got up and helped him in, but I didn't. I just followed him. He shut the door, and I heard him fall," says Rick.

The fall sent Vernon to the emergency room where all he could think about was his darling back at home. His mumbling was hard to understand. The only thing the kids could make out was "Where's mom?"

"When he knew everybody was going to take care of her for whatever amount of time she had left, he would go ahead," says daughter Tami Cox.

Vernon passed away a little after 8 o'clock that night.

Rick called the house to tell Catherine and the others of his passing, but Catherine didn't need a phone call. She already knew. She said Vernon was waiting.

"My mom always wanted a Lincoln Continental with the big wheel on the back. She said Dad's coming with the car with the wheel on the back, and we're going," says Tami.

"He always had everything ready for her. She just had to go with him. That was all," says Rick.

Thirty hours after Vernon died, Catherine was ready. She said she could see Vernon out on the porch, and that he was there to get her.

"We were like, 'If Dad's here, you go ahead and go with Dad in that car.' She said okay, closed her eyes, and that was it," says Jan.

"I can just see them walking out, getting into that stupid Lincoln," says Rick.

The two were buried side by side at the Rock Island Arsenal Cemetery.

"When we had the funeral mass, they brought dad down first. Father Chase, at the time, said here's Vernon once again waiting for Catherine," says Jan.

It's a bond that even death couldn't break, a love worth the wait.