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McLean Resident Dick Cheney Recounts His Battle with Heart Disease

Cheney: "I've become a great believer of 'when in doubt check it out.'"

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.

For the next hour Cheney shared his history of five heart attacks and his decision to have a heart transplant at Inova's 2012 Cardiovascular Symposium in Tysons Corner.

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 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.

Amelie Krikorian April 29, 2012 at 07:04 PM
If he was diagnosed with heart disease, he should have had the transplant years ago. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_transplantation and several other sources clearly state that a contraindication for being considered for a transplant is being over sixty: exactly how is it ignorant to have facts available online that say people over 60 are not considered for transplants? Why don't YOU provide some facts to prove that Cheney should have shot me ... heart disease can start very young and you can get yourself put on a donor list then but if you make it to age 71 without a transplant clearly either your heart disease was not sufficiently serious to warrant a transplant earlier or he was ineligible for other reasons. Average life expectancy worldwide is 67; transplant committees don't consider listing people over 60; Cheney may very well have been diagnosed with heart issues but he should have either gotten on the list back in his 30s when he claims he was diagnosed or accepted that at 71 maybe the donor heart should have gone to a 30 year old with heart disease.
Spinal Tap April 29, 2012 at 08:59 PM
I don't get my medical knowledge from looking things up on the Internet. You are throwing out foolish statements because you obviously hate Cheney's political persuasions. You are clearly a shrill. Try going to medical school (and do a cardiology fellowship while you're at it) before spouting off nonsense.
Amelie Krikorian April 29, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Oh so you disagree that transplant committees take someone's age and general health into consideration before putting someone on a transplant list? Funny, every surgeon I know (and we have three in the family) says that age and general health are the two top considerations for putting someone on a transplant list. I only put Internet links because I can't post a link to the conversation I had with them about it. Quit slinging insults, you pathetic cretin, and try posting facts instead. Give me some evidence that transplant committees DON'T consider age and health before putting someone on a transplant list. I am betting that any other 72 year old with that medical history and current health would NOT have been considered. Cheney bought himself a heart. And incidentally, politics has absolutely ZERO influence on my statements here: I have voted Republican, I have voted Democrat, I have written in candidates. Perhaps you are defending Cheney's transplant because you vote Republican. I would have rather seen it go to one of the thousands of younger people out there- people who have not had a chance to raise a family and have a career already.
Spinal Tap April 29, 2012 at 10:25 PM
I think most politicians are useless.....just like fools that make claims about buying hearts.
Amelie Krikorian April 29, 2012 at 11:18 PM
And still, no support for his claims. Not to mention the fact that he does not have the courage to appear in this discussion as himself but has chosen to hide behind the name of a fake band. Which would lead you to think -- since he hasn't been able to prove otherwise -- that he is a fake specialist. I am sure even now there are people in the Washington Post checking to see if the hospital and doctor involved in the transplant suddenly received a large anonymous donation to ignore Cheney's advanced age. There simply is no other reason for a man of his age to have gotten a heart in defiance of the traditional guidelines that transplant committees have.

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