Political will kept him busy for four decades, but personal will and the best in medical technology keeps Dick Cheney alive beyond retirement.
The former vice president shared his successes and struggles in politics and heart disease Saturday with a ballroom full of Oklahoma health care professionals during the 2012 Integris Advanced Cardiac Care Heart Failure Symposium.
Five weeks to the day after getting a heart transplant, Cheney, 71, said prudence and good timing kept him ticking even when the odds were stacked against him.
“The first time I was aware I had a problem was in the middle of my first campaign for Congress,” he said. “I got out of the car, walked into the emergency room, lay down on the table and passed out. That was my first heart
Heart disease, when fatty deposits block the flow of blood in the arteries, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Six million people currently suffer from it, with 580,000 new diagnoses each year at an estimated cost of $40 billion.
Cheney was 37 when he had his first of five heart attacks. Since then, he's undergone just about every heart procedure there is — angioplasties and stents in his arteries, surgery to repair aneurysms behind his knees, a pacemaker to keep his ticker thumping.
After a heart attack in 2010, a battery-powered implant called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, was installed to keep blood flowing to his organs. About 20 months later, in March, Cheney's faulty heart was replaced with a new one.
Cheney attributed his success in fighting the disease to his decision to seek professional help after his first heart attack. When the doctor said conditions were ripe for continued heart problems, Cheney said he quit smoking cigarettes, changed his diet and began to exercise.
An internist convinced him to stay in the Congressional race, Cheney said — a fight not just for political power, but to stay vibrant and relevant.
“He said, ‘You're going to be in a lot more danger having to spend your life doing something you don't want to do,'” Cheney said. “That advice stuck with me from the very early days, and I did the things a prudent man would do — I followed the advice of my doctor.”
Most people, especially young people, hesitate before seeking help, he said. Those are the ones who don't make it.
But developing a long-term treatment plan is
“About the time a new technology came along was about the time I needed it,” he told the audience.
Sitting in a plush red chair, Cheney described in detail the installation of the LVAD device in 2010.
When he showed up at the hospital, Cheney was suffering from pneumonia and his organs were nearing failure due to lack of blood flow, he said.
He spent two weeks “eating grapes in Italy” while unconscious in the intensive care unit following the surgery, and several months afterward undergoing intensive rehabilitation.
“It never really sank in what it meant to be disabled until I went through that process,” he said. “You have to have gumption every day. It'd be relatively easy to get frustrated by it all and just lie there in bed — but that would be a big mistake.”
The technology worked well enough to keep Cheney alive until he made it to the top of the transplant list. That surgery, he said, was much smoother. Cheney said he was awake and off his respirator in two days and home within nine.
“I never needed anything more than Tylenol 3,” he said.
In the way
Cheney said twice his heart problems almost got in the way of his political career. The internist talked him out of quitting the Congressional race in Wyoming in 1978, and he went on to serve five terms.
After serving as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, Cheney spent eight years in the private sector before he was asked to vet potential vice presidential candidates for George W. Bush.
He said his heart condition pushed him to decline initial offers to share the ticket with Bush, but in the end he recommended himself for the job.
“I told (Bush), if I'm in the middle of a debate with a vice presidential opponent and I feel a twinge, I'm going to blow out of there,” he said. “But it turned out to be OK because I didn't have my next heart attack until two weeks after the election was over.”
State ranks 48th
Dr. Douglas Horstmanshof, co-director of Integris Advanced Cardiac Care and program director of the Integris Heart Failure Institute, said Cheney personifies the marvels of modern health care.
The former vice president has suffered “the full spectrum of heart disease, yet with that continued to operate with the highest level of society,” Horstmanshof said.
Oklahoma ranks 48th in the nation for heart disease, Horstmanshof said.
Cheney's appearance Saturday was an attempt to draw more public attention to the problem, but also enlighten the state's health care workers of the treatment options available at Integris Baptist Medical Center, he said.
Integris patients have received 400 heart transplants since the program was developed in 1985, Horstmanshof said, and the hospital has installed 150 artificial hearts in four years — including 50 in 2011.
“We are doing exactly what Mr. Cheney had right here at Integris Baptist Medical Center,” he said. “We offer access for regular Oklahomans to exactly the same therapy Mr. Cheney has obtained.”