Dick Cheney's heart

For the first time, Dick Cheney speaks frankly and in detail about the heart disease that plagued him during his political career

The following script is from "Dick Cheney's Heart" which aired on Oct. 20, 2013. The correspondent is Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Michael Radutzky and Denise Schrier Cetta, producers.

Dick Cheney is one of the most polarizing figures in America. But whatever your opinion of him, you'll be surprised to learn that during his years in government, his biggest fight was for his own survival.

He has been the beneficiary of nearly every medical breakthrough to combat heart disease over the last 35 years, including a heart transplant at the age of 71. And as you'll hear tonight, many of those innovations came just in time to save his life.

It's all revealed in a new book called "Heart," that he's written with his cardiologist Jonathan Reiner. It's a medical story, but also a story about how his disease intersected with pivotal moments in modern history. Cheney's health was so tied to his political career, just 67 days after taking the oath as vice president, he took a historic and unprecedented action.

Dick Cheney: Basically, what I did was I resigned the vice presidency effective March 28, 2001.

Sanjay Gupta: So nearly, for your entire time as vice president, there was a letter of resignation sitting there.

Dick Cheney: Pending.

Sanjay Gupta: Pending.

Cheney discovered there was no provision in the constitution to replace a vice president who is alive, but incapacitated. So he drew up a letter of resignation to give to the president.

Dick Cheney: It says, "In accordance with Section 20 of Title Three of the United States code, I, Richard B. Cheney, hereby resign the office of Vice President of the United States...

Sanjay Gupta: How did President Bush react when you told him about this?

Dick Cheney: A little surprised. But he thought it was a good idea.

It was just three years ago Cheney says that people gasped, when they saw how frail he had become. Today, just 20 months after his heart transplant, Cheney's weight is back to normal, the color has returned to his skin - he has no shortness of breath.

Sanjay Gupta: How are you feeling?

Dick Cheney: Fantastic. Now I'm to the point where-- I literally, you know, feel like I have a new heart. A lot more energy-- than I had previously. There aren't any real physical limits on what I do. I fish, I hunt. And-- I don't ski, but that's because of my knees, not my heart. So it's been a miracle.

Dick Cheney is a product of modern medicine at its best. He has suffered five heart attacks, undergone open heart surgery, multiple catheterizations and angioplasties, had a defibrillator implanted, and a pump attached directly to his heart -- all of that before his transplant at age 71. Each time Cheney reached the precipice of death a breakthrough in medical technology extended his life.

Bad hearts run in Dick Cheney's family, and early on he did little to take care of himself. He had his first cigarette at age 12, and by the time he was President Ford's chief of staff at age 34, his daily staples included fatty food, beer and up to three packs a day.

Dick Cheney: All the cigarette companies donated cigarettes in a white box with gold trim around it embossed with the presidential seal. That was kind of, if you were in a cocktail party, or maybe even Washington, and whipped out your presidential cigarettes and lit it up with a park of matches from Air Force One, that was sort of a status symbol.

After his first White House stint, Cheney returned to Wyoming to run for Congress. At just 37, his genetics and his lifestyle caught up with him. He suffered his first heart attack, and doctors thought he should quit the race, but he didn't want to hear it.

Sanjay Gupta: You were pretty persuasive because, I mean, they said, "it would be wise to drop out of this at the present time."

Dick Cheney: They said that in the medical records.

Sanjay Gupta: They didn't tell you that?

Dick Cheney: Well, I don't recall. What I took away from the conversations was that key phrase is "hard work never killed anyone."

Sanjay Gupta: Patients like to hear what they want to hear.

Dick Cheney: And that may well have been the case here, as well, too. But they also emphasized that stress comes from doing something you don't want to be doing.

He won that election and five more after that, but his heart disease was steadily progressing. By the time Cheney took over as the first President Bush's secretary of Defense in 1989, he'd suffered three heart attacks and undergone quadruple bypass surgery. It was a time of global upheaval. And Dick Cheney was in the center of it all - the collapse of communism, the uprising in China's Tiananmen Square and the first Gulf War.

Dick Cheney: Our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines prepare for one of the largest land assaults of modern times.

Sanjay Gupta: Looking back, do you think the stress affected your heart disease and your overall health?

Dick Cheney: I simply don't buy the notion that it contributed to my heart disease. It was in fact that getting back to work, getting back to that job, whatever that job might be, was important enough that I, in fact, kept 'em separate, I guess would be the way to think about it.

Sanjay Gupta: But I do wonder, as a doctor, is that really plausible? Can you really keep such a significant medical history and such a significant job separate?

Dick Cheney: I did.

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