But by the summer of 2010 the former Vice President’s heart health was in serious decline. While at home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he blacked out one day while backing his Jeep out of a garage. Without a heart transplant, it was soon determined, he would not survive.
“I hadn’t given up, but we were close to running out of options,” Cheney recalled Friday during a 2014 Dallas Go Red For Women Luncheon with his wife, Lynne Cheney, and his longtime cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, M.D., FACC. “I had come to grips with the notion that I’d reached the end of my days. I always expected that it would be because of heart disease.”
Instead, Cheney lived. He received an artificial heart pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in July 2010. The device kept his ailing heart alive long enough for a full heart transplant, which he received in March 2012.
The Cheneys and Dr. Reiner discussed the former politician’s decades-long struggle with heart disease on the American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day to help raise awareness about cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans. More than 80 million Americans – including 43 million women — suffer from one or more forms of heart disease.
Dr. Reiner, Cheney’s cardiologist since 1998, said the vice president’s heart health challenges have closely tracked major advances in treatment and prevention options.
“When Dick Cheney had his first heart attack at age 37, his treatment was much the same as President Eisenhower received after having a heart attack in 1955 – there was nothing to do but bed rest,” he said. “His heart health is really the story of modern cardiovascular medicine. He’s been around for each of these remarkable medical advances.”
Cheney has received many treatments for his heart over the years, including a pacemaker, an LVAD and cholesterol-reducing statin drugs. He said he feels lucky that throughout his life, new options have been available just in time.
“It was like being late for work and every stop light ahead is red,” Cheney said. “But for me, they all turned green. That was in fact what happened with respect to all those developments.”
Added Lynne Cheney: “We have been so fortunate. We are heirs to the amazing research that has been developed.”
For Cheney, a family history of heart disease on both sides of his family was likely a major contributing factor for his health problems. But his habit of smoking two to three packs of cigarettes per day while a rising star in President Ford’s administration was surely another.
“In D.C., it was encouraged,” he recalled of the pervasive culture of smoking in the 1970s. “The cigarette companies provided us with free cigarettes. They would come in white boxes with a gold presidential seal. If you really wanted to impress in those days, all you had to do was whip out your presidential cigarettes. I had a carton of cigarettes always on my desk.”
That all changed after his first heart attack in 1978. By that time medical research had revealed the powerful preventive measures people could take to both prevent first heart attacks and second ones: being more active, controlling cholesterol, eating better, managing blood pressure, losing weight, reducing blood sugar and stopping smoking.
After that first heart attack, Cheney immediately quit smoking and strived to live a healthier lifestyle.
Still, he often wondered how his health would affect his political career, beginning after his first heart attack, when he decided to run for Congress. Decades later, when then-Gov. George W. Bush told Cheney he wanted him as a running mate for the presidential election, he made sure Bush was aware of his heart condition.
And Cheney recognized the importance of immediate treatment if he again had heart symptoms. With his first heart attack, he went to the emergency room right away, and once there he collapsed and had to be resuscitated.
“He had to understand that if I felt a pain, I was going to the ER no matter what,” Cheney said. “In the end I was up to the task. And for the next eight years I survived.”