Dick Cheney is widely viewed as a marvel of modern medicine, having survived five heart attacks with the aid of cutting-edge technology, including an artificial pumping device and a heart transplant.
However, the former vice-president says it was a decidedly low-tech health measure that is most responsible for saving his life: kicking the habit.
“I started smoking at the age of 12. My friends would smoke every Monday after our Boy Scout meeting,” Cheney revealed in a talk at the Miami International Book Fair Saturday attended by Newsmax Health.
He went on to become a three-pack a day smoker, a habit which grew during his time as chief of staff for President Gerald Ford.
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“In those days, smoking was not only allowed at the White House, it was encouraged,” he said. “They delivered free cigarettes in cartons to the White House every week. They had the presidential seal on them. There was nothing cooler during a meeting than to whip out a presidential cigarette. It gave you leverage,” Cheney added.
But, after his first heart attack at age 37, he abruptly quit. “I think that if I hadn’t quit, I would be dead,” he said.
Now 72, he says he has been given a new lease on life after a heart transplant last year. He and his cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner have written a book together, “Heart: An American Odyssey,” which chronicles Cheney’s remarkable heart disease survival story.
The new book details Cheney’s five heart attacks and the procedures used to save him, including angioplasty, quadruple bypass surgery, the implantation of a cardioverter defibrillator, followed by a left ventricular device, and finally a heart transplant in March of 2012.
Cheney credits his decision to stop smoking with saving his life, but he says that for a long time he thought it was all he had to do to stay healthy. “Erroneously, I looked upon quitting smoking as the solution,” said Cheney.
Not until later did he change his diet, reduced stress, or take other important heart-healthy lifestyle measures, he said.
In 1988, after bypass surgery, Cheney went on the then-new statin drugs to lower his cholesterol. “Statins let me go on for years without a problem,” he said. In fact, the bypass surgery and statin therapy was so successful that he was skiing in Vail, Colo., when President George H. Bush nominated him as secretary of state, “I was skiing at 10,000 feet so nobody questioned my capacity to do the job,” said Cheney.
By 2010, after five heart attacks and numerous other crises, things looked bleak for Cheney. “I was increasingly weak. All I wanted to do was get out of the bed and get over to the easy chair and spend the rest of the day there,” he said. “I even talked to my family about final arrangements. I was at peace. I had a remarkable life and now it was ending and that was OK.”
Near death, his doctor recommended he undergo surgery to have a ventricular left assist device (VLAD) implanted. The battery-operated pump largely took over the pumping of his weakened heart until a donor heart became available for a transplant.
“That was the roughest recovery,” he recalled. “I was in the ICU, I was heavily sedated, and I got pneumonia. I had to undergo 35 weeks of rehabilitation.”
Then came a fateful phone call. “I got a phone call in the middle of the night and they said, ‘We have a heart for you.’ I had waited 20 months for that moment. The transplant surgery was the easiest surgery I’ve ever had.
“Now, I feel great. I always thought that my heart disease would outrun the technology, but it never did.”
In addition to quitting smoking, Cheney offered the following tips that he credits with helping him survive:
- If you are lucky enough to have a job you love, keep at it. “I always felt my job was positive. After every cardiac event, I could never wait to get back. My work was the incentive that gave me the ability to get back to functional life. I really feel this is what kept me going.”
- Find a stress-reducing hobby. “I go fly-fishing to relax. Even when I was prepping for the vice presidential debates, I would work up until the day before, and then, on that day, I would go fly-fishing.”
- Find the best cardiologist available. “I had always seen whoever was on call, but after my second heart attack, I found the best cardiologist in Washington, D.C. and had him follow my case. That led to his recommendation that I get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, which kicked in several years later, and prevented me from going into sudden cardiac arrest.”
- If you sense anything is wrong, don’t delay going to the hospital. When Cheney suffered his first heart attack “I woke up with two fingers of my left hand tingling – that was it. I had no chest pain. But I went to the ER and passed out. I’d suffered a heart attack, but I was in the right place. The lesson I learned time and time again is never hesitate. Don’t put it off. Don’t say it’s indigestion or wait until morning.”
- Cultivate gratitude. “I wake up ever day grateful to be alive. I am grateful to my doctor, grateful to the heart donor’s family, and grateful to see another day that I never thought I would see.”
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