Irritable heart

Besides chronic rheumatism, my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull may have suffered from irritable heart — a combat-related debility that emerged during the the U.S. Civil War.

Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa studied what was then seen as a cardiovascular disease among Union soldiers at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia. It became known as Soldier’s Heart and, later, Da Costa Syndrome.

Da Costa probed the war-related origins of irritable heart and found that, in some cases, it could transition into organic heart disease  — discoveries that would become important to my great, great grandfather in his later years.

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Union Army reenactors load heavy knapsacks, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., 4 May 2014. Overexertion before and during the stress of battle under burden of packs, gear and arms contributed to irritable heart. Photo by Molly Charboneau

What the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion says about irritable heart  jibes closely with Arthur’s description of his llness:

“Among the affections of the heart a functional disturbance known by the name of irritable heart or cardiac muscular exhaustion was the most notable product of the war.”

“Irritable heart appears to have been a result of active field service” including “drills and double-quick movements of camp, effected under the full burden of arms and accouterments” as well as “some over-action of the heart during a particular battle or campaign.”

“The affected soldier was subject to fits of fluttering cardiac action, accompanied by pain in the praecordia, shortness of breath and perhaps haemoptysis, dizziness and dimness of vision; sometimes these were so severe as to occasion insensibility.”

With advances in medicine and diagnostic testing, the irritable heart of the Civil War era is now regarded as a stress-related neurological/anxiety syndrome — the first identification of a post traumatic stress disorder among U.S. combat troops.

After Arthur “gave out” he was sent to De Camp General Hospital for two months of treatment — consisting of rest, a therapeutic diet and an intriguing regimen of pain relievers and unusual-sounding tonics that predated modern medicine.

What were these analgesics and potions? Are any still used today? What was the diet like? The detective work continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

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