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 attack.”
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 only half the story behind Cheney's successes in fighting heart disease. The other was just plain luck, he said. As the disease progressed within him, the technology to fight it advanced in sync.
“About the time a new technology came along was about the time I needed it,” he told the audience.