Dick Cheney has lived with chronic heart disease for virtually all of his adult life. At 37, as a young man running for the U.S. Congress in Wyoming, he had his first heart attack. His last – a fifth – occurred in 2010 and by then having taken advantage of everything medicine and technology had to offer, Cheney knew he was at the end of the road. And, remarkably, as the former vice president told me in this 1:2:1 podcast, he didn’t fear death:
I concluded that sooner or later, I was going to run out of technology, run out of new innovations and developments in the area of heart medicine… I thought about it, I guess, I was at peace. It was not painful. It wasn’t surprising or frightening. I had come to that point where I fully expected that I had lived a wonderful and remarkable life. I had a tremendous family. I had everything a man could ask for.
Facing end stage heart failure, in the summer of 2010 he received a left ventricular assist device commonly known as an LVAD. But he knew the device wouldn’t be enough. A transplant was the only option that would set aside decades of heart ailments and give him something he had thought was impossible: longevity. Twenty months later, at 71 years old, a late night phone call informed him a donor had been found. Life for Dick Cheney would begin anew.
Now, nearly two years after his transplant, Cheney and his cardiologist, Jonathan Reiner, MD, have written a book about his history of heart ailments, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey. As we were putting together the current issue of Stanford Medicine – a special on cardiology – it made sense to include an interview with Cheney, and so I pursued one.
Cheney launched the book last fall with a number of high-profile media interviews starting with Sanjay Gupta’s on CBS’ 60 Minutes. We spoke a few days before Thanksgiving when family matters were in the press. I decided not to repeat the buzz questions that had already consumed the press at the time – the Homeland scenario or whether his years of service in the White House afforded him special access to health care unavailable to everyone else. I pursued a different line.
This wasn’t the taciturn Cheney that I had feared as an interviewer. He was pensive, reflective and clearly extremely grateful that he was able to have this extension on life. His co-author Reiner told him that a heart transplant is a spiritual experience so I asked Cheney what’s been his? He told me:
It’s the gift of life itself… After you’ve been through all of the procedures and so forth and then anticipating death and finding your life has been extended that it’s miraculous… You have a sense that after you’ve been through all of that, everything else is small. You don’t sweat the small stuff… A friend of mine asked me when I told him it was a spiritual experience: “Does that mean now, that you’re a Democrat?” I told him, “Well, not that spiritual.”
I closed the interview with a final question. What if he learned he had the heart of a liberal Democrat? Well, you’ll have to listen to the podcast or read the Q&A to find out his response.
Previously: Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions
Illustration, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine magazine, by Tina Berning