A month after receiving a heart transplant at Inova Fairfax Hospital, a vigorous-looking former vice president Richard B. Cheney told an audience of cardiologists he felt “uniquely blessed” that his 35-year battle with heart disease had so neatly tracked the arc of medical progress.
“My disease was able to stay sort of right behind developments . . . in the field of cardiology,” he said. “So that about the time I needed something new because of progression in my own disease, it was there and I was able to take advantage of it.”
Cheney, 71, accepted the invitation from the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute to address the gathering of physicians — including several who had operated on him — long before he learned he would be getting the transplant.
He recounted a life punctuated with medical close calls that, “if they’d occurred a couple of years sooner . . . I wouldn’t be here today.”
Perhaps the earliest close call was the first of Cheney’s five heart attacks, which struck him in 1978 when he was 37 and in the midst of his first campaign to represent Wyoming in Congress.
His symptoms were mild — a tingling sensation in two fingers on his left hand that woke him at about 2am. But just a few weeks before, one of Cheney’s cousins had suffered a serious heart attack.
Cheney said his newfound awareness of the disease, combined with the knowledge that it ran in his family, persuaded him to go to the hospital.
“I walked into the emergency room, sat down on the table there, and passed out.”
Treatment options were still limited back then. But doctors were at least able to resuscitate him.
A few days later, Cheney said he asked the internist who was caring for him — there were no practicing cardiologists in Wyoming at the time — whether he would have to give up politics for a less demanding line of work.
“He said, ‘Aw hell, Dick, hard work never killed anybody,’ ” Cheney recalled.
Still, the doctor did prescribe some major lifestyle changes for Cheney — who had been smoking two to three packs a day as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff.He took a month-long rest, during which he said he “sat under a tree” reading an advance copy of President Richard Nixon’s biography, which a friend had helped ghost write, while his wife, Lynn, campaigned on his behalf.
When he returned to the trail, he brought his mother, who rode along in an RV and was “religious” about cooking healthy meals for him.
“I didn’t like it very much, when I first started it,” he said, chuckling. “But it was a big help.”
He also became a big proponent of the motto: “When in doubt, check it out.”
“Every time I had a problem, as soon as I sensed it, no matter what I was doing, I dropped everything and headed to the emergency room.”
By 1988, when Cheney had his third heart attack, he had assembled a team of cardiologists at George Washington University Hospital Center to monitor his condition. They recommended a procedure that had only recently emerged as state-of-the-art in cardiac care: quadruple bypass surgery.
Cheney, who had been selected as chairman of the rules committee for the 1988 Republican presidential convention in New Orleans, flew back to Washington early to check into the hospital.
“I remember laying there in the bed as they prepped me for surgery the next morning, watching on television as George Bush . . . gave his ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ pledge in New Orleans,” he recalled.“That’s what stands out. That, and the fact that the guy with the razor who was removing all my chest hair weighed about 300 pounds,” he said, to laughter from the audience.
During his vice presidency — and about half a year after his fourth heart attack — Cheney’s doctors suggested yet another cutting edge procedure: implanting a pacemaker that included a defibrillator, which delivers a powerful electric shock to the heart when a potentially damaging change in heart rhythm is detected.
The combination device was still somewhat controversial. But Cheney credited it with saving his life when it discharged in December 2009, causing him to black out just as he was backing his Jeep out of the garage of his Wyoming home.
Though no longer in office, he still had a detail of Secret Service agents. He recalled regaining consciousness to find them swarmed around the vehicle, which had come to rest in a grove of aspen trees.
By the summer of 2010, some months after Cheney experienced his fifth heart attack, it was clear that he had entered the late stage of coronary disease.
“Lots of times, all I wanted to do when I got out of the bed in the morning was to get to my chair where I could put my feet up and take a nap,” he said.
Doctors fitted him with one last device: a heart pump known as a left-ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which is often used as a bridge to keep patients alive and in better health while they await a transplant.
Cheney was on the pump for about 20 months.An unwieldy piece of equipment that includes wires and large batteries that are carried outside the body and must be kept dry at all times, the pump put an end to Cheney’s wade-fishing hobby.
But he said the pump vastly improved his health and came in handy in some unexpected ways.
Like the time a reporter who flew to Wyoming to interview him started in with questions about policy and politics. Cheney said he disconnected one of the spare batteries from the pump.
“Bells and whistles and sirens went off,” he said, chuckling. The other battery was still keeping the device running. “But it totally, totally discombobulated the interviewer. From that point on I could say anything I wanted.”
It was some time after he put his name on the transplant waiting list before Cheney finally made the “private decision” that he would go forward with the procedure if a donated heart became available.
The call came at around midnight late last month.
“I was delighted, obviously,” he said. “There’s also, though, an element, that I’m very much aware of the fact that . . . somebody, in effect is giving you a magnificent gift and it’s probably at a time in the life of the donor’s family that’s very, very difficult. . . . You owe a deep debt of gratitude to the donor and the donor’s family and you never lose sight of that.”