He was 37 years old and running for Congress when he woke up in the middle of the night with a tingling in two of his fingers.
A cousin had recently suffered a severe heart attack. His family had a history of heart disease. He woke his college roommate and they headed for the hospital in Cheyenne, Wyo.
“I walked into the hospital, sat down at a table and passed out,” former vice president and McLean neighbor Dick Cheney told a room of cardiologists Friday afternoon.
He said he was lucky that his 35 years of fighting heart disease paralleled the great strides in treating it.
"When I needed something new, it was there and I was able to take advantage of it,” he told the lunchtime medical gathering of more than 200.
Cheney is Inova's star patient. His transplant surgery was performed at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church on March 24.
After that first heart attack back in 1978, he went home and rested for a month. Gave up his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Started to exercise. Followed his doctor's orders.
His wife Lynn campaigned for him “and my poll numbers went up," he said. He won his first term as Wyoming's sole congressman.
Cheney went on to spend six-terms in the House. He served as secretary of defense under Pres. George H.W. Bush and was elected vice president twice with President George W. Bush.
He experienced his second heart attack after he left the White House.
On a snowy winter morning in 2009, Cheney was pulling out of his garage in Jackson Hole when he passed out. His car swerved, alerting the trailing Secret Service agents to an emergency.
“I immediately came to... I had a knot on my head from the steering wheel,” he said. His ICD, a small battery-powered electrical generator implanted in his chest, had saved his life.
He recounted that 2010 was a turning point in his battle with heart disease.
“All I wanted to do was to get to my chair where I could put my feet up and take a nap,” he said. “For the first time I felt the disease was significant enough that it would require more than just minor modifications.”
Cheney couldn't muster the energy to enjoy his annual Memorial Day fishing trip on the Snake River. He sent his heart readings to his doctor.
“I couldn’t stay out there a week and that lead to the ultimate decision... I was approaching end stage health failure," he said.
Cheney returned to Washington the next day.
He checked himself into the hospital. He and his doctors decided on July 6 that "it was necessary to move quickly" to implant a Left Ventricular Assist Device in his chest for treatment of end stage heart failure.
After the surgery he caught pneumonia, was placed on a respirator until August and kept under heavy sedation.
His wife and daughters were constantly there. The family support was crucial, he said. "They told me they were worried about whether I would make it.”
The device would buy him time while he waited on the transplant list.
When he finally left the hospital, Cheney was weak and incapacitated. He couldn’t "take a cap off a tube of toothpaste," he said.
He gradually improved. Cheney adjusted to getting around with all the paraphernalia that accompanies the LVAD. He waited for 20 months.
He was 71 when he got a phone call at around midnight on a Friday. “We loaded up and got to the hospital within the hour and did the surgery in the morning."
Cheney said his story should serve as an example to others.
"I've become a great believer of 'when in doubt check it out.'
“If there is ever any reason ---numbness in the arm or other symptoms, don’t wait around and tell yourself you’ll have it checked next week," he said. "If you have a sense that something isn’t right and you don’t have it checked, you are a damn fool.
"You are as much responsible for your own care as your physician. Every time I had a problem as soon as I sensed I had a problem, I dropped everything and went to the emergency room. Almost always that first instinct was right."
Cheney said he owes his life to his heart donor.
“Someone has given you a magnificent gift. . . You are aware even as you are pleased with the opportunity to receive a donor heart that you owe a deep debt of gratitude to the donor and to the donor's family and you never lose sight of that.”
He received a standing ovation.