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Lessons of a bad heart

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How Dick Cheney and I live on the edge and quiet the killer in the basement

From time to time, I have felt Dick Cheney's pain. We are both about the same age--I am some months older--and we both had our first heart attacks in our mid-30s. Over the years, we have been similarly inconvenienced by heart attacks. The elephant has stepped on his chest four times, and on mine twice. Cheney has had one multiple-bypass operation; I have had two of them. We have both had angioplasties, with stents. A couple of years ago, I drew ahead of Cheney in the fancy-therapy category by having dna injected into my myocardium in order to induce the growth of new vessels--angiogenesis, a still experimental but highly promising technique that has, in my case, worked miraculously well.

The Bush-Cheney situation produces role-reversal jokes--about Bush being a heartbeat away from the presidency, and so on. Having lived through medical experiences similar to the Vice President's, I have a wary and complex attitude toward the fact that the most important man in Washington aside from Bush has been playing peekaboo for so long with his own mortality.

Since Cheney is not vice-presidential standby equipment but rather a vital part of the Bush Administration, his medical fragility (if that's what it is) raises semiurgent questions about illness and power. When young John Kennedy was elected in 1960, he had already been given the sacrament of Extreme Unction several times. He had suffered for years from life-threatening Addison's disease. Kennedy succeeded Dwight Eisenhower, whose presidency was much afflicted by heart trouble and ileitis. Lyndon Johnson, following J.F.K., had a history of heart attacks and a Rabelaisian appetite for all sorts of things that were not good for his coronary arteries, including quantities of Scotch. He abdicated the presidency in 1968, went home to the ranch and smoked himself to death.

Public-private connections: when I contemplate Cheney's dilemma, I see my own--minus power, limousines and Secret Service.

My approach to life for many years has been ascetic, robust and provisional. Every mortal lives with the fact of his own death. Most people are not disabled by the thought; they are able to forget about it, on most days. We pretend we are immortal. And of course, we are--for the moment. People with a history of heart attacks, like me and Cheney, do, however, listen to the engine more carefully than most drivers. We cock an ear inward.

After a heart attack, you feel as if someone has broken into the house in the middle of the night. You know there is a killer waiting in the dark basement. You imagine him mounting the stairs with a knife in his hands. You finger the tiny glass cylinder of nitro as if it were Kryptonite. You rub the middle of your chest and feel the bumpy scars where the bone was wired back together after bypass.

A heart attack leaves you feeling that your most intimate friend has breached a fundamental trust. The body--bright youth, now tarnished and corrupted--loses its mind and violently assaults you, a monster within. You live thereafter with a strange sense of alienation.

Is it the heart attacks or the bypass operations afterward that for some reason often leave the patient prone to depression? It seems an odd emotional logic to become depressed after having been given new piping and a new lease on life. Some lore has it that bypass people are a little crazier than most, that the "cabbage" (coronary-artery bypass) activates a wild hair. I am beginning to think there's truth in the theory that bypass surgery damages the memory. Mine was once photographic. Now I have to work harder sometimes to fetch a name. The other day, for some reason, I wanted to retrieve the name of--you know, the gonzo journalist of fear-and-loathing fame ... Rolling Stone ... you know ... But the once perfectly familiar words skittered off into the dark, and it was half a day before I caught sight of them as they dodged around another corner of the mind: Hunter Thompson!

I have seen no evidence of Cheney's being depressed or acting screwy or forgetting things. He seems the perfect Duke of Kent, who was King Lear's bluff, loyal, sane liege man and exec. I am not 100% about my own sanity. I certainly have had bouts of the bypass depression.

Living with heart disease over the long haul usually produces a disciplined and grumpily abstemious character who learns, in time, a sense of quiet gratitude. I guess I'm not terribly worried about Cheney, although he could stand to lose some weight and work on his muscle tone. He moves sometimes with alarming heaviness, like Willy Loman after a long day. What he should do is think of heart disease as a good way to get in shape.

Lance Morrow writes a column for every Monday and Thursday


Cover Date: March 19, 2001



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