What Is A 'Massive Heart Attack'? : The Two-Way Slate has an explainer. Perhaps more often than not, it's hyperbole.
NPR logo What Is A 'Massive Heart Attack'?

What Is A 'Massive Heart Attack'?

In a post yesterday, reporting on the death of George Steinbrenner, long-time owner of the New York Yankees, I quoted Bill Madden, sportswriter for the New York Daily News:

George Steinbrenner, a towering and intimidating figure who dominated the New York sports scene for 35 years, winning 11 American League pennants and seven world championships as owner of the Yankees, in and around two suspensions from baseball and multiple feuds and firings, died Tuesday morning in Tampa after suffering a massive heart attack.

VC Ponsardin (Vcponsardin1), a reader, left this comment: "A 'massive heart attack'... how do they know? Why do people always say that when someone dies from a heart attack? Massive or not, it was big enough to kill him. That's all that matters."

Good point, VC. Slate's Daniel Engber sheds some light on the [superfluous?] modifier:

"It's just like a regular heart attack, but it affects more of the organ," he explains. "Physicians might use the phrase 'massive heart attack' to describe a myocardial infarction that destroys a large amount of tissue -- say, more than 25 percent of the total heart muscle."

Statements from the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees organization didn't include "massive." I'll give Madden the benefit of the doubt, assuming he spoke with a doctor, friend or family member who used the adjective. But Engber, who talked to Drs. Ilan Wittstein and Douglas Zipes, says "reporters often describe sudden-death scenarios as 'massive heart attacks' even when there's little evidence that a heart attack has occurred."

The second part of VC's comment stands, then: "Massive or not, it was big enough to kill him. That's all that matters."