Dick Cheney’s heart

Cheney suffered his first heart attack in 1978 at the age of 37 when he was campaigning for the US Congress

March 23, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 07 No. -18 Mar. 21- 2014 (Chaitra 07, 2070)

The way Dick Cheney, the former vice president of the US, dealt with his numerous life- threatening heart problems is stunning, given that he held many crucial government positions when he suffered these heart conditions. Learning about these problems may  be a useful, cautionary tale for us because  the treatment options that Dick Cheney had are non- existent for most of us. So, prevention of heart diseases is obviously key. However there is no denying that modern, innovative treatments the vice president received again and again testifies to the marvel of modern medical science. 

Cheney suffered his first heart attack in 1978 at the age of 37 when he was campaigning for the US Congress. He started smoking cigarettes when he was 12 years old and soon he was smoking 3 packs a day. In addition his daily meal consisted of very fatty food including a dozen doughnuts. At the age of 34, he was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and for sure dealt with many tension- filled moments at the White House.  

Clearly he was asking for trouble and he got it starting with his heart attack at an early age. He subsequently went on to have  4 more heart attacks in 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2010. As though these were not enough, in the course of all this, Cheney underwent angioplasty, open heart surgery, and had a pacemaker implanted. More catastrophic interventions followed. He needed an implanted defibrillator, a device that would automatically shock his heart if the heart rhythm became dangerously abnormal. Regarding his implantable defibrillator, there is an interesting terrorism-related story when he was the vice president. Fearing a terrorist could assassinate the vice-president by sending a signal after hacking into Cheney’s implantable defibrillator device telling it to shock his heart into cardiac arrest, Cheney’s cardiologist ordered the manufacturer of the defibrillator to disable wireless feature of the device! There are obvious medical risks that an important government official runs that would be uncommon in the ordinary patient with a device like this.

In 2010 when he was convinced the end was near for him and he had discussed his burial plans with his family, he had a left ventricular assist device ( LVAD) implanted which is a battery operated heart pump just to buy time while he waited for a heart transplant.  After a 20 months wait period he finally received a new heart.

Worldwide about 4000 heart transplants are done every year, out of which more than half are carried out in the US. Effective immunosuppressive medicines since the 1980s has been pivotal in the donor heart not being rejected by the patient’s immune system. About 75 % of the heart transplant patients will easily survive beyond three years and the quality of life is excellent. As the vice president explains, he does everything  he wants except downhill ski. And that is not because of the heart but because of osteoarthritis of his knees. 

Clearly although tremendous strides have been made in the treatment of heart problems, the focus of attention especially in our part of the world has to be on prevention. So,  we need to make sure that  we stop lighting up cigarettes or bidis; and it will also be in our best interests not to overdo the “ladoos and peddas” and try to eat less of these. One thing is certain. It will be wonderful to avoid the narrow escapes that Dick Cheney encountered due to the unhealthy lifestyle he lead.

Buddha Basnyat.jpg

Buddha Basnyat MD

Buddha Basnyat, MD, MSc, FACP, FRCP, Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit-Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Kathmandu.

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