Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America
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Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America + Take One Step for a Healthy Heart with Larry King  

Watching: Dr. Roizen's Interview with Larry King

Dr. Michael F. Roizen Interviews Larry King [0:30]

Larry King talks about his own experience with heart disease, introduces the panel, and discusses risk factors

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Transcript: Dr. Michael F. Roizen Interviews Larry King

Q: I'm sitting here with probably the most famous interviewer of all time, but someone who didn't take good care of himself.

A: Did not.

Q: Now, you knew when you had your heart attack, or the big one as you call it I guess, that you were at risk. You didn't do healthy things.

A: You know doc, I have never understood that in myself. I paid no attention. For example, I smoked three packs a day. When commercials would come on television to stop smoking, I'd change them right away. There was a famous commercial Yul Brynner did in which he said-- he's dead now; he had already died. He taped it prior to his death to play after his death, saying, "Please don't smoke." I would turn that off right away.

I ate-- I never exercised. I ate anything I wanted to eat. I just-- Larry King was indestructible. He would never get a heart attack. Nothing like that would ever happen to him. When I had little pains in the chest, I'd think about it, I'd go to the doctor, and then they would go away. So I never thought it would happen to me.

Q: The doctors would go away or the pain?

A: Well, doctors can do only so much. They would say, "You ought to take care of yourself." I had one doctor smoking tell me I ought to take care of myself.

But what happened was in February of 1987 I just-- this is interesting-- I just finished my TV show. I was doing both TV and radio then. And C. Everett Koop was the guest, Surgeon General of the United States. We finished the interview and he says to me, "Are you still smoking?" And I said, "Yeah." He says, "You don't look good." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "I don't like the way you look. Go to see a doctor."

Then I go to do my radio show. And David Halberstam was the guest, the famous writer whose brother, the late Michael Halberstam, was a cardiac surgeon. And he says to me, "Are you okay? You don't look good." So now I hear two 'you don't look good's.

I go home that night. It's about two in the morning, and I get this terrible pain in the shoulder.

Q: It was in your right shoulder.

A: Didn't have a chest pain at all. Just right shoulder going down the arm. I called the doctor and he said, "Well, you ought to get over to the emergency room." And I went to George Washington University--

Q: In Washington, DC?

A: That's where I lived. I lived in Virginia. Went right across the bridge, smoking all the way to the hospital. My producer at the time drove me over.

Q: And you were having pain at the time?

A: In the shoulder. Pain in the shoulder. We pull into the hospital. As we pull into the emergency entrance, which is the same emergency entrance where President Reagan had been taken-- I was put into the same cubicle. And just as I get out of the car, the pain is gone. So I turn back to my producer and I said, "The pain is gone. I'll be right out. I'll just go in. I'll be right out." They chased her car away because she couldn't remain sitting in front of the emergency room.

So I go in, and a guy comes over to me and says-- this is strange-- "Are you a heart patient?" I'm just standing there. I said, "No." He says, "You don't look good." And I had a grey pallor.

Q: That was three in one night.

A: Three. So they put me in the emergency room and then this cardiologist came down, Dr. Katz. And I'll never forget him, because he said, "I'll tell you, I know you're not having the pain now but I think it's going to come back. Just from the way you look, I think it's going to come back. I'll sit here with you. You agree to stay with me, I'll stay with you." So I said, "Okay."

And we're talking and nothing is happening and nothing is happening. I almost wanted to light a cigarette but they were in my jacket. And--

Q: You hadn't thrown the packs out yet?

A: Not yet. And the pain came back. And as the pain came back, they started doing things. Blood, they took blood. EKGs. Whatever they were doing. And then they all run over to this board and they look up at the readings from the test and suddenly a blue light goes off and they all come running toward me-- nurses, doctors. Running toward me. And I said, "Something tells me this is not a pulled muscle." And they gave me TPA-- at that time it was experimental-- which stopped the pain. And the pain then was intense. It was the worst. I had never had pain like that. I really thought I was going to die.

And Dr. Katz said to me, "Mr. King, you're having a heart attack." And I said, "Am I going to die?" And he said, "Good question. That's a good question. I can tell you're in the questioning business." And then typical doctor, he says, "We don't know. The lucky thing is you're having it right now, right here. And the second lucky thing is it's a right-side heart attack. That is the usual heart attacks where people recover. Some people have a right-side heart attack and never go to the hospital, and they pick it up later in a test that they had the-- they didn't even know they had a heart attack. So the odds on that part look good, but in the next 24 hours we'll tell."

And then subsequently I needed heart surgery. That was some months later. But I changed that day for some reason. My daughter drove me home. I had cigarettes in my pocket from going over to the hospital. I threw them into the Potomac, and I've never had a cigarette since. And I don't know how I stopped. In other words, I didn't say, "Boy I'm never going to smoke again." I just never smoked again.

I had a psychiatrist friend tell me that I was scared straight. That I was so scared that that fright-- might happen to me now-- and I'm so triggered to not be in that hospital again that I won't light up.

Q: How do we get people to do things in advance? Men still deny it. I mean, denial is more than the river in Egypt, as it's said. How do we get men-- I mean, because you're just typical.

A: All you can do is all you can do. The best part of what I do is when people come over to me and say, "Boy I heard you talk about it and I stopped smoking." Or, "I went and had this checkup," or "I did the test," or "I went to a cardiologist." That's the best joy. As Bob Dole and I were walking through the Republican convention in '92 and a guy came up and said, "You know, Senator Dole, I saw you on Larry King's show and you talked about prostate cancer and you talked about getting this test, this blood test. I went and had it and they found it and they got it done in time. I want to thank you for my life." Well he started to cry, because that's the best joy, if you can prevent someone.

Why won't people change? I don't think we accept death. I don't think we accept the fact that-- in other words, you're going to die, but I'm not going to die. Phil is going to die but Joe ain't gonna die. I think we believe we're indestructible and we're immortal. There's no other reason. I don't understand it. Why would you do-- for example, why would an intelligent reasonable person smoke? Why would you smoke? It's insane.

Q: Well, I don't know. I didn't do it, right?

A: It feels good.

Q: And we take the immediate joy of that versus the long-term pain of it.

A: Yeah. But what I did do was start a cardiac foundation. And that started through sitting around with a bunch of guys and one said to me, "What did your surgery cost?" And I said I didn't know. And subsequently found out I think it was $45,000 dollars, $40,000 dollars. I said, what about people who fall between the cracks who can't afford? So we started this foundation, the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, in 1988, '89, after the surgery. And what we do is we hold galas every year and we raise money and help people.

Q: Help people who fall between the cracks?

A: Yeah, who are non-insured, part-time workers. This country is a disgrace in its healthcare system. We are the worst in that we have so many people not insured. And the funny thing about bypass surgery is bypass surgery is 90% of the time elective. In other words, they told me, "Mr. King, you're not doing well on this test. We think you should have bypass surgery." I said, "Am I going to get another heart attack?" "Don't know, but it doesn't look good, but it's your choice."

Now if I had had a heart attack that needed bypass-- sometimes they do bypass surgery right at heart attack-- then no questions would be asked. I would be brought into the hospital and they would do it, and they'd worry about payment later. But if it's elective, and most of the time it's elective, so many people aren't insured.

So we do so many procedures. We flew a young kid in from Afghanistan. The Pentagon flew him in and we treated him. We do all kinds of procedures. We even do medications. We try to help.

Q: Now what did you do-- let's go and talk about what you did right for your health today. What are you doing now that's reformed that's going to keep all these people from needing it?

A: Well I don't smoke. I exercise. I used to exercise every day and as I got a little older that became harder. I do it every other day. But I do walk a lot.

Q: Now did you walk today?

A: I walked about two miles. I walk every day. I'm up very early. I've got two young boys; I play with them. I do a lot of walking. And I watch what I eat. I'm pretty careful about what I eat. I stay at about 160 pounds.

Q: But you moved-- I mean, your diet as described in the book was not a great diet for heart attacks. It was a great diet if you're the Cleveland Clinic; we need your business. But it wasn't a great diet for you.

A: We work with the Cleveland Clinic, our foundation.

Q: I know.

A: Here was a Larry King dinner. You want a Larry King dinner? Good evening, sir. I'll have the Caesar's Salad with extra--

Q: Dressing.

A: Dressing. And yeah, that butter for the-- oh the bread. The butter with the bread. And then put the cigarette out, put a more little butter with the bread, a Caesar's Salad, light another cigarette, light another cigarette. No drink. I didn't drink.

Okay, come over. I'm going to have lamb chops and extra thick on the fat. I like those fatty lamb chops. Double-baked potato with cheese. And dessert, I think I'll have lemon meringue pie and coffee with cream. And keep smoking throughout the dinner.

Now I don't know how I would have existed today. Can't smoke in restaurants. For example, you can't smoke on airplanes, right? If I were flying commercial today and smoking and going from New York to California, I'd have made five stops. Or I'd have not believed the sign. You know there's a sign, do not smoke in the bathroom, a siren will go off. I would say to myself, "Delta put up a sign but they don't have a siren. Delta won't go for the money for the siren." I'd smoke in the bathroom. In other words, I would defy it.

Q: How do we-- you said you don't know, but it's really a problem. Fifty percent of our total healthcare costs go to lifestyle-preventable diseases like heart disease. How do we get to people before?

A: I think all we can do is all we can. I think you just keep doing what you're doing and trying to drum it home.

Q: Does the foundation reach out to try and prevent it beforehand too?

A: No, we don't do that much. We're not an educational arm. There's so many different heart firms. What we do is help people after.

Q: And when the people-- now Medicare. You said our system is a disaster. Medicare doesn't pay very well for prevention counseling and they don't pay very well for rehabilitation.

A: See, that's two of the stupidest things. That's part of stupidity. Why would you not pay for preventive counseling, which would cost you much less than what it costs to treat the heart attack? I mean, it would be logical to me. It would cost you $20 dollars as opposed to $200 dollars. Why not invest the $20 dollars?

Q: Well when you get the politicians on and every--

A: They all agree with you. Oh, I've got a bill. I'm looking into that.

Q: But it doesn't happen.

A: It doesn't happen because they go back and they forget and other things take priority. It's really sad because our health system, we think-- we've conned ourselves. "America has the best health system in the world." We may have terrific doctors and wonderful hospitals. We do not have the best health system.

Q: Because we don't do the prevention.

A: We don't do the prevention.

Q: And we have a whole bunch of people slip through?

A: And a whole bunch of people that can't afford it and therefore don't get-- for example, how do you reach people in the inner city and tell them what they're eating is wrong? How do you change? It is extremely hard and it's going to take some-- Harry Truman proposed national health insurance in 1948. 1948. Norman Thomas proposed it in 1932. He had 20 planks(?). He was a socialist party candidate. He had 20 planks in his campaign. 19 are now law, except health insurance.

Q: It's amazing.

A: For some reason, either the AMA has sold a bill of goods or insurance or somebody has sold a bill of goods as to why we don't have, why everybody in America doesn't get healthcare.

Q: Now, one of the things that I'm told about denial is patients say, "If I have a heart attack, I'm going to be like Larry King. I'm going to get perfect treatment afterwards and it won't matter. So I shouldn't have to worry about it beforehand." What do you say about that?

A: That's dumb too. First of all, you might die. It is the number one killer in America.

Q: A third of the people die?

A: Some people do die. A third of people die. So I think that's bad odds. I wouldn't roll that dice. I think there's no other way to put it: it's stupid. It's just stupid.

Q: Thank you very much.

A: Thank you.

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