Cheney, 71, accepted the invitation from the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute to address the gathering of physicians — including several who had operated on him — long before he learned he would be getting the transplant.
He recounted a life punctuated with medical close calls that, “if they’d occurred a couple of years sooner . . . I wouldn’t be here today.”
Perhaps the earliest close call was the first of Cheney’s five heart attacks, which struck him in 1978 when he was 37 and in the midst of his first campaign to represent Wyoming in Congress.
His symptoms were mild — a tingling sensation in two fingers on his left hand that woke him at about 2am. But just a few weeks before, one of Cheney’s cousins had suffered a serious heart attack.
Cheney said his newfound awareness of the disease, combined with the knowledge that it ran in his family, persuaded him to go to the hospital.
“I walked into the emergency room, sat down on the table there, and passed out.”
Treatment options were still limited back then. But doctors were at least able to resuscitate him.
A few days later, Cheney said he asked the internist who was caring for him — there were no practicing cardiologists in Wyoming at the time — whether he would have to give up politics for a less demanding line of work.
“He said, ‘Aw hell, Dick, hard work never killed anybody,’ ” Cheney recalled.
Still, the doctor did prescribe some major lifestyle changes for Cheney — who had been smoking two to three packs a day as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff.He took a month-long rest, during which he said he “sat under a tree” reading an advance copy of President Richard Nixon’s biography, which a friend had helped ghost write, while his wife, Lynn, campaigned on his behalf.
When he returned to the trail, he brought his mother, who rode along in an RV and was “religious” about cooking healthy meals for him.
“I didn’t like it very much, when I first started it,” he said, chuckling. “But it was a big help.”
He also became a big proponent of the motto: “When in doubt, check it out.”
“Every time I had a problem, as soon as I sensed it, no matter what I was doing, I dropped everything and headed to the emergency room.”
By 1988, when Cheney had his third heart attack, he had assembled a team of cardiologists at George Washington University Hospital Center to monitor his condition. They recommended a procedure that had only recently emerged as state-of-the-art in cardiac care: quadruple bypass surgery.