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October 22, 2013

Dick Cheney opens up about his heart—and why he disabled a wireless feature

Daily Briefing

    On CBS' "60 minutes" last week, Dick Cheney discussed the events leading up to his heart transplant last year, a medical "odyssey" that includes five heart attacks, open heart surgery, and a battery-operated heart pump.

    The 72-year-old former vice president recounted the story in his new book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey, which was co-authored by George Washington University Hospital cardiologist Jonathan Reiner. The book includes alternating passages in which Cheney describes his struggle with heart disease while Reiner illuminates the research behind medical breakthroughs in cardiac care.

    A 35-year struggle

    Cheney suffered his first heart attack in 1978 at age 37 while running for Congress, likely a byproduct of his dozen-doughnut, three-pack-a-day habit while serving as chief of staff for President Gerald Ford. More heart attacks followed in 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2010. He also underwent a quadruple bypass in 1988, followed by two angioplasties and the placement of a heart pacemaker.

    In 2010, Cheney had a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) implanted as a "last resort" while he awaited a new heart. After 20 months on the transplant list, Cheney received a new heart in March 2012.  

    "It's the only disease I'm aware of that you live with it for 35 years and it gets progressively worse…and the day comes that you do a transplant, and all that stuff goes away: the old heart, the LVAD, the pump that kept me going for 20 months, the stent, the implantable defibrillator, all that stuff. And all that's left to show that I was a heart patient was that scar on my chest," Cheney told USA Today.

    No special treatment?

    Throughout his ordeal, Cheney maintains that he received no special treatment—with one exception. In 2007, medical device manufacturer Medtronic agreed to produce a special cardiac defibrillator for Cheney with the Wi-Fi feature deactivated, out of concern that someone could send a signal to the device and shock the vice president into cardiac arrest.

    "I thought it didn't make a lot of sense for the vice president of the United States ... to have a device that someone in the next hotel room, someone downstairs, someone on the rope line, might get into and kill him," recalled Reiner, adding that he found the potential threat from hackers or terrorists "credible" (Ford, CNN, 10/21; Gupta, CNN, 10/19; Page, USA Today, 10/21).

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