COMMENTARY

Coronary Heart Disease Survivor VP Dick Cheney: Why He's Alive Today

Melissa Walton-Shirley

Disclosures

November 18, 2014

There is no doubt that fewer politicians have affected the free world more than former Vice President Dick Cheney. In our world, it should matter not one whit if you love, loath, or are indifferent to his politics; his survival instincts are to be admired. Yesterday, he sat rosy-cheeked in the morning's press conference as a mere mortal being, a husband, a father, a patient, and a survivor of humankind's greatest adversary, indeed his greatest adversary, coronary heart disease. All the notoriety, connections, wealth, and power in the political world could not change the fact that he would need a CABG, stents, a defibrillator discharge, an LVAD, meds, and eventually a heart transplant to survive. Some things, though, set him apart from the average American cardiac patient, and it wasn't just access. It was the strength and courage he found within himself to fight for more time on this planet. He controlled things that others simply don't. Here are the best reasons why he is still alive today. They are a lesson in survival for every heart patient.

Compliance and Adherence

His private cardiologist Dr Jonathan Reiner will be the first to tell you that he is über-compliant. When asked to describe his relationship with Cheney, he said, "The VP is a remarkable patient." He then turned to Cheney, as it to have a personal conversation with him, and said, "And in my 16-year tenure with you there is not a single treatment suggestion that you ever said 'no' to. It's that kind of trust that has developed between a patient and physician that has defined this relationship." He then quipped that he got a phone call one night and on the other end of the line a voice said, "The Secret Service is taking Mr Cheney to the hospital with chest pain." He smiled and admitted, "I said something different. But seriously, when I told him he needed to be recathed, he went for it. Even if it was politically awkward, he always put his health first."

He Did Some Savvy Research

Dick Cheney

Cheney decided as he lay in the hospital bed with his first heart attack that he needed a pivotal physician that would see him on a regular basis; someone respected, innovative, and competent. He described his first cardiologist who retired and then asked him for a recommendation for his current physician, and Dr Reiner's name came up. They've been fighting together on team Cheney ever since. "After I had my first heart attack they treated it as a one-off affair. I had quit smoking so I thought the problem was solved. Six years later I had my second heart attack. It hit home it was a chronic disease that would follow me the rest of my life. I knew I needed a top-flight physician," he said.

He Knows What Makes Him Happy

I awkwardly asked him the first question of the press conference. As I was trying to explain how we'd heard so much about the negative aspects of oxidative stress, he immediately and inquisitively repeated, "Oxidative stress?" before I could finish my explanation. It was another good survival skill. He knows what he doesn't know and aims to understand something well before he answers or proceeds. It was a necessary assessment, because he was just 37 years old and running for Congress when he had his first heart attack.

"So, why didn't you just say, 'This job is killing me' and just quit? Why weren't you concerned about the negative effects that stress can have on your heart-attack rate?" He answered, "I asked my doctor about that, and he said to keep doing what you love. I think it would have killed me sooner if I had quit. I always knew I wanted a career in politics, and if I couldn't have done that, I think that would have been more stressful than doing the job."

He Quit Smoking

I then inquired about the role that smoking may have played in his illness and if it was difficult to quit. He replied, "I smoked for over 20 years, and lying there after my first heart attack I decided to quit." He then added, "No, it wasn't difficult at all."

He Searched for and Received Evidence-Based Care

Dr Reiner replied, "As his doctor, I was determined to not negatively bias his care, as happens with so many in the public eye. Every element was guideline driven," he said. "But you have to conform your care to their unusual circumstances," he admitted.

He Has Courage

"When in doubt, check it out. If you think you might be having a heart problem of some kind, get evaluated," said the former VP with confidence. Dr Reiner then added that he asked Cheney if he was frightened when he got the phone call when a heart became available. "The procedure to implant the LVAD had nearly killed him, but he said, 'No, because you said it would be easier.' " End of discussion, apparently.

He Has a Grateful Heart

Earlier he recounted how he learned at a young age just how short life could be. "My mother's father died at age 66 of heart disease. I was 14 and I was with him when he had that last heart attack. At 17 months after leaving the administration I was suffering from end-stage heart failure. I thought my life was about over. It was not disturbing. It was the normal flow of events. Sooner or later I was going to reach the end of my days. Then it was recommended I get an LVAD that would assist my heart. We did that and it bought me 20 months," he said. When asked about the lessons that he gleaned from his nearly lifelong battle, he replied, "I'm probably more tolerant of the daily cares and tribulations that we all have to deal with. I am grateful for the fact that each day is a new day and one I never expected to see."

That might be the only part when the former VP wasn't entirely honest with himself. I'll bet deep down inside him, there was a small voice that said, "Not yet, not now. You can find a way, some way to stay here."

He did what it took, and that is where there is a lesson for us all.

 

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