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Dick Cheney reflects on how medical care kept him active despite heart disease

November 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
From his first heart attack at age 37 to a full transplant in 2012, Dick Cheney says he's proud to have lived an active life despite battling heart disease. Gwen Ifill sits down with the former vice president, author of "Heart: An American Medical Odyssey," to discuss how his health concerns affected his time in office.

GWEN IFILL: Dick Cheney was 37 years old when he suffered his first heart attack. By the time he was sworn in as vice president in 2001, he’d survived four. And there would be one more.

He’s received stents, defibrillators, an external battery-powered heart pump, a quadruple bypass, and now, at the age of 72, he is living with a transplanted heart.

The former vice president and his longtime cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, have written a book about this journey, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey.

I spoke with him earlier today.

Vice President Cheney, welcome back to the NewsHour.

DICK CHENEY, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey: It’s good to be back, Gwen.

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GWEN IFILL: In reading your book, it becomes clear that many points during your public life and your private life, you have come much closer to death than any of us knew.


DICK CHENEY: Well, I was certainly sick for a long period of time.

But that’s one of the things that we hope to achieve in the book is that I was able to live with chronic heart disease for 35 years and still lead a very active, very normal, some people say abnormal, career, but able to function at a high level in spite of the disease. And that’s because of all the developments that are now available in terms of medicine that have made that possible.

GWEN IFILL: You know, you knew, however, how serious it was certainly by the time you became vice president, enough that you thought that it was prudent to write a letter of resignation in advance.

DICK CHENEY: Yes, I did.


DICK CHENEY: Well, one of the first things I did when I took over as vice president is, I asked Dave Addington, my attorney who had been with me a long time, to — I said, I want absolutely to know everything there is to know about a transition. If something happens to the president, I don’t want to be surprised. I want to have given it a lot of thought in advance, review the Constitution, review the statutes and so forth.

And he came back and highlighted a problem which I had never really thought of, which is, there’s provision for removing a president who is incapacitated. The vice president convenes by Cabinet, and by a majority vote, they can temporarily make the vice president the president.

But there’s no way to deal with an incapacitated vice president. And if you had one incapacitated, it can begin to make it difficult to implement the 25th Amendment. And given my history of heart disease and the possibility of heart disease or stroke, maybe something such as happened to Woodrow Wilson 17 months before the end of his term, that I didn’t want to have that be a problem in my case.

So, we came up with the idea that I would formally sign a letter of resignation, that David would hold it, keep it, and that he would — if circumstances arose where it was appropriate, he was to present it to the president, and the president would decide whether or not to submit it to the secretary…


GWEN IFILL: And the president was the only other person who knew that this letter existed?

DICK CHENEY: That’s correct. Right.

GWEN IFILL: How long did you know that you had such serious heart disease, over what span of your life?

DICK CHENEY: Oh, I learned about it when I had that first heart attack when I was 37 years old. And…

GWEN IFILL: But was there family history?

DICK CHENEY: There was a family history on mom’s side.

I was with my grandfather when he died of heart disease. On dad’s side of the family, I was always asked about family history and always said no, no indication of it at all. But we found 10 years after my first heart attack — I had had my third by then, getting ready to undergo a bypass — mom got him to go see the doctors one day.

They took one look at him and sent him in and did emergency surgery, a six-way bypass, and saw evidence of two prior heart attacks he just never told anybody about. So, I had strong family history on both sides, but for 10 years, I didn’t know about it with my dad. He just didn’t talk about it.

GWEN IFILL: But — yet every time you had one of these episodes, your response was just to step on the gas. You never said, well, maybe I won’t run for Congress, well, maybe I won’t be vice president.

DICK CHENEY: I got a piece of advice when I had that very first one back in 1978. I was in the middle of my first campaign for Congress.

And I asked the doctor, who is still a good friend to this day, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, an internist, I said, Rick, does this mean I’m going to have to give up my campaign? And he said, oh, heck, Dick, hard work never killed anybody. That was his response.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t that what you wanted to hear, too?

DICK CHENEY: That’s what I wanted to hear. That’s what I took away from the conversation. He also said that stress comes from spending your life in something you don’t want to be doing, a job you just hate. But he said, if you feel up to it, go for it.

GWEN IFILL: When you were a young man — you tell the story about how you decided to get insurance, even though you didn’t really feel like you were a sick person at all, and that that allowed you to be able to afford the care you received after your first heart attack.

DICK CHENEY: When I got — when I went to work for the federal government, I signed up for the regular Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy that is available for all federal employees. And by the time I did that, I was married and had kids and a family. I had obligations. And I thought an insurance policy was the right thing to do.

GWEN IFILL: As you watch this debate that we’re having now about health care and insurance and mandated insurance around the country, do you ever look at it through the experience that you had, growing up as someone who needed, it turned out, extreme medical care?

DICK CHENEY: Well, and I — when I — the first time probably I was ever in the hospital, I didn’t have insurance. I was 23 years old. It was shortly before Lynne and I got married.

I got sick, hospitalized, had no insurance. And the money I had saved for our honeymoon went to pay medical bills. So I had been in the position of not having insurance when I needed health care.

Obviously, it’s a big problem that I think everybody has wrestled with in recent years in terms of how do we provide quality care to the maximum number of people. And it’s not an easy problem to solve, you can see from the current debate.

The thing I worry is that, in the rush to Obamacare and the problems that are arising with the program and the Web site and so forth, that there’s a real danger here that we will do serious damage to what is the world’s best health care system. And I really believe it is.

For example, things such as the device tax, there’s provision in the new bill for — the new law for medical devices to be taxed. That raises serious questions about the ability to continue the pace of innovation and, in effect, to save my life with stents, implantable defibrillators, left ventricular assist device, and so forth.

All of those things came really from the private sector, people taking a chance, entrepreneurs. And when they begin to tax that to generate revenue for the federal government, you worry about what it does to that mechanism that’s obviously reduced the incidence of death from heart disease in this country by 50 percent.

GWEN IFILL: If that tax were removed, do you think that would be a reasonable solution to this standoff we’re having about Obamacare?


DICK CHENEY: No. It’s an important issue that needs to be addressed, but I don’t think it solves is bigger problem.

GWEN IFILL: And what’s the bigger problem?

DICK CHENEY: Well, I think the bigger problem is that the complexity of the new program of Obamacare generally, the difficulties that are involved — the president having said repeatedly that you can keep your insurance if you want it, turns out not to have been true, but that apparently was true from the get-go.


And I wonder what other additional surprises are in there that they are only now being sorted out in terms of how we’re going to accommodate all these people, for example, this whole program that only if we get healthy youngsters to sign up, people in their 20s, will we have the revenue to be able to fund the benefits that have been promised to the elderly, sick.

That strikes me as a potential problem of major significance.

GWEN IFILL: As someone who has benefited from excellent care…


GWEN IFILL: … do you think that you would have survived as well as you appear to be doing today had you not been the vice president, someone with access to that kind of care?

DICK CHENEY: Well, the care I had basically most of the time, as I say, it was basically — it was Blue Cross/Blue Shield, paid the bills for that whole period.

I would say, when I got to be secretary of defense, shortly after I had had bypass surgery and cholesterol-lowering drugs came in, I had basically a 12-year period there where I was free of any difficulties. When I got to the White House, there’s an advantage obviously in having a physician assigned to you 24 hours a day, which I did, but, in part, that was because of my past health history.

GWEN IFILL: What about people with your health profile who don’t have those kinds of advantages?

DICK CHENEY: Well, the care I got in terms of the procedures and the medications and so forth is available to anybody who is in the system.

So I didn’t get anything extraordinary there. What happened to me, because, as vice president, obviously, the country has an interest in the health and capability of the president and vice president, that’s why there’s a thing called the White House medical unit, just like Secret Service protection — it’s a part — it goes along with the job, but it’s not a perk.

It’s something that the country has an interest to seeing to it that we keep the president and vice president as healthy as possible.

GWEN IFILL: The name of the book is Heart: An American Medical Odyssey. The author is former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Thank you for sharing with us.

DICK CHENEY: Thank you.