Imagine that you could document virtually the entire history of modern cardiology through a single patient.
Well, it turns out you can. His name is Dick Cheney. Yes, that Dick Cheney. The 72-year-old former two-term U.S. vice-president (under George W. Bush) is a survivor of five heart attacks (the first when he was 37) and the recipient of several stent procedures, a quadruple bypass, a defibrillator installation and, last year, a complete heart transplant.
If that doesn't constitute a world record for cardiac surgery performed on one man who is still alive, it must be close.
And whatever one may think of Mr. Cheney's political convictions – some people regard him as a war criminal for sanctioning waterboarding of suspected Islamic terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere – there can be no doubting the man's survival instincts.
Several times, he had one foot decisively over the portal into the other world, only to be rescued by some combination of technology, medical talent, sheer luck and raw will.
Mr. Cheney and his leading cardiologist, Jonathan Reiner, chronicle this astonishing journey in a new book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey.
Mr. Cheney recounts his memories of his various cardiac ordeals and Dr. Reiner establishes the medical context, including some capsule histories of the origins of the many procedures performed on his most famous patient.
"It's nothing short of a miracle," Mr. Cheney said of his heart, which is half the size of his enlarged old one. "When I came out from under the anaesthetic, I was joyous. I had a whole new lease on life."
At one point, he had been literally 20 minutes from death, experiencing all the signs of late-stage heart failure. His kidneys, liver and heart were all shutting down.
It was then that he had yet another innovative cardiac procedure, installation of a so-called LVAD (left ventricular assist device), a kind of internal pump, operating at 9,000 revolutions per minute. That surgery bought him another 20 months of life, while he waited for a donor heart to become available.
Today, he said, he's resumed a full schedule of activities, exercises five days a week and eats everything except raw fish or raw meat – foods that might adversely affect an immune system compromised by drugs needed to ensure his body does not reject the new heart.
In theory, he said, "I could even ski," a sport he participated in for 40 years, "except that my knees are shot."
It's a remarkable story. For 35 years, he notes, he walked around at risk of dying at any moment. As his book relates, he had even signed a letter of resignation as vice-president, to be submitted in the event of his incapacity. He had also arranged for the Wi-Fi element of his pacemaker to be turned off, lest a terrorist mount an electronic assassination attempt.
We spoke in the presidential suite of a downtown Toronto hotel. Mr. Cheney was in town to address the International Economic Forum of the Americas. Now that he is out of office, he said he's enjoying the "relative" liberty of being able to speak more freely about issues on his mind.
That includes, not surprisingly, declaring his "deep disappointment" with the Obama presidency. "Both domestically and internationally, I think they are headed down the wrong roads, the road of European-style socialism. A lot of redistribution of wealth, expansion of government, higher taxes. And internationally, Obama is operating in ways that will diminish American influence, particularly in the Middle East. I think he botched the Syrian run-up in significant ways. Our adversaries no longer fear us."
On the other hand, there are clearly still some selective, no-fly zones, comment-wise.
Asked for his views on the recent controversy surrounding the U.S. National Security Agency's global eavesdropping programs and the implications for privacy and civil liberties issues, Mr. Cheney said, "I haven't been in the loop of classified intelligence since I left the White House almost five years ago. If there had been such a program, it would be classified and I wouldn't be able to talk about it anyway."
Although he does not yet know the name or even the gender of his heart donor, Mr. Cheney said it's clear that "whoever he was, he had a good heart." A recent, follow-up catheterization showed that his "new" arteries "are in magnificent shape, better that those I probably had for most of my life."
Now that he has the new heart, I suggested to Mr. Cheney that perhaps he'd have the energy to run for office again.
"No," he said, chuckling. "It's not on my to-do list. I had a great time and a great career and I loved every minute of it, but it's time for a younger generation."
Was Mr. Cheney aware of the anecdotal evidence suggesting that recipients of new hearts sometimes acquire the personality traits of their donor?
"It's funny," he said. "A friend of mine asked me to describe the experience and I said, 'You know, it's fundamentally a spiritual experience.' So he said, 'Does that mean that you woke up a Democrat? I said, 'It wasn't that spiritual.'"
Special to The Globe and Mail