Dick Cheney: 'Coronary Artery Disease Is Just a Part of Who I Am'

Nancy A Melville

May 08, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — When former Vice President Dick Cheney looks back on his cardiovascular trials and tribulations dating back 35 years--including no less than six MIs, bypass surgery, the implantation of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), and finally a heart transplant, he is decidedly devoid of self-pity.

"I always think of a coach I had in high school who said 'Cheney--you just can't jump or shoot--get outta here,' and I just accepted it. I feel it's the same with heart disease," he told an audience of surgeons here at the American Association for Thoracic Surgery 2013 Annual Meeting .

"Coronary artery disease is just a part of who I am, and I don't feel like a victim or feel sorry for myself."

In fact, Cheney said in an on-stage "honored-speaker interview," he never even regarded his heart ailments as impediments to his high-profile and often high-stress career.

"It wasn't like I was sitting there on 9/11 wondering, 'Gee, is this going to hurt my heart condition?' You keep it separate from your career.

"I never felt that I was in place where I couldn't do something because of my health issues," he added. "I've led a very full and active life."

Cheney's first heart attack was in 1978, when he was in the middle of his first campaign for Congress. His doctor's advice at the time set the tone for his approach to heart disease.

"I asked my doctor if this would keep me out of a political career, and what I took away from that conversation was his advice that 'stress comes from something you don't want to be doing, but hard work never killed anyone,' and that's the part I remember.

"Maybe that's not the best medical advice technically, but it couldn't have been better in terms of getting on with my life despite coronary artery disease. What it meant to me was, when you have a problem, you deal with it and then you get to work.

"You quit smoking and get back to work; you have a bypass and go about being Secretary of Defense."

The road hasn't been without a few very rough patches, however. Cheney said his LVAD was a low point. "The LVAD was the toughest surgery I've ever been through--and I've had three open-heart procedures," he said. "I contracted pneumonia, was heavily sedated, and was on a respirator for several weeks in the ICU."

Thanks to the power of sedation, however, Cheney was in a dream state, somewhere in Tuscany. "It was not an unpleasant experience for me--they asked me how I did and I said fine--I was in a villa about 40 miles north of Rome," he said. "But my family didn't take it as well, and there had been serious questions about whether I would survive."

His physical condition after the surgery was hardly that of having taken a restful Italian vacation. "When I came to, I had lost 40 pounds as well as all of my muscle mass," he said. "I looked in the mirror and what I saw was the image of my father, in his 80s, when he died of heart failure.

"I couldn't even squeeze a tube of toothpaste to brush my teeth. The only bodily function I could perform without assistance was breathing, and I even had to relearn that.

"The experience gave me a strong appreciation for what it must be like to be truly disabled," he said.

"I could look through the door of the room I was in and see the bathroom from my bed, and what I craved was to be able to get out of the bed and walk there, but I couldn't move."

Cheney said the support of his family and particularly his wife, Lynne, was essential to his recovery.

Cheney was placed on the transplant list after receiving the LVAD, and, after the LVAD ordeal, the transplant was almost a walk in the park. "By the time I was scheduled for the transplant, I had regained a lot of strength, so the transplant surgery was in fact the easiest surgery I'd ever had," he said. "Certainly easier than the LVAD.

"When I came out of sedation, and the surgeon told me the operation was a success, my response to that was 'hot damn!' It all becomes real at that moment, and you're free to wake up every day with a smile on your face, feeling grateful for every moment you have."

In response to an audience question, Cheney said he had compared notes on heart ailments with former President Bill Clinton, who has had major cardiovascular issues of his own.

"I'm aware of what he had and he's aware of what I've had, and we have on a few occasions discussed what we've been through," he said. "I remember after my LVAD surgery he called. There are about 80 million people out there with some form of heart difficulties, so it's a pretty big club, but you do form a bond of sorts."

Cheney said he is currently in the process of writing a book with the doctor who has been his cardiologist for years--Dr Jonathan Reiner (George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, DC).

"[Dr Reiner] writes as a doctor, and I write as a patient, and we decided to take a crack at this in part because the history of my disease, dating back to 1975, really follows some of the key breakthroughs in technology that have made a big difference in reducing the incidence of death from heart disease in the US."

Looking back at the role of his cardiovascular health in his public image, Cheney recalled one particularly memorable "highlight"--his depiction by comedian Darrell Hammond, on an episode of Saturday Night Live.

"Darrell Hammond was playing me after I'd had a heart issue and, as me, calling himself a 'one-man Afghani wrecking crew,' he opened his shirt and there were all kinds of pipes and plumbing and cans and things in his chest, and he says, 'This allows me to avoid radar, and it even makes coffee!' It really was funny," he laughed.

"You need to have a sense of humor about it," he asserted. "If you're vice president, when you sign on, you assume that you do funerals and you do fund-raisers, and you're the butt of jokes of late-night comedians," he said. "Joe Biden will tell you the same thing."

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