The Heart of the Matter

by Michael Walsh

A book I’m buying today is Heart: An American Medical Odyssey, by former vice president Dick Cheney and his cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Reiner of the George Washington University medical center. Tevi Troy writes in The Weekly Standard

This engaging book is cowritten by Cheney and his cardiologist, Jonathan Reiner, with an assist from his daughter Liz Cheney. As the former vice president writes, Reiner once related to him that he is not aware of anyone else, besides Cheney, who suffered a heart attack in the 1970s and is still alive. 

Furthermore, and this is something even political junkies might not realize, Cheney came remarkably close to death on multiple occasions. In 2009, he had an episode of ventricular fibrillation, which he only survived because “eight years earlier, Dr. Reiner had had the judgment and foresight to recommend I get an implantable ICD.” In addition, he almost died on the night doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in 2010. If they had not made the accelerated decision to have the surgery on that very night, before the doctors had planned on doing the operation, Cheney would not have survived. And when he received a heart transplant in 2012, doctors marveled at the swollen, diseased organ that had plagued Cheney for so long.

That Cheney did survive so long despite his chronic heart condition—he suffered his first heart attack in his 30s—is a tribute to extraordinary advances in the field of cardiology over the last four decades. Reiner tells this story for roughly half the book, using Cheney’s experiences as a patient to trace the improvements in cardiac medicine. The other half of the book, coming from Cheney himself, provides an incisive précis of his longer 2011 memoir, In My Time, with an especial focus on his medical travails.

Cue the tolerant Left. But I have a personal reason for wanting to read this book. In February 2010 I suffered a heart attack while in Washington, D.C, and the doctor who, by sheer chance, caught my case that frosty, snowy morning was Jon Reiner. As they were prepping me, one of the nurses told me that I was lucky — I wasn’t feeling very lucky at the time — that the head of the cardio team on call was Cheney’s personal heart doctor. “If you can keep Dick Cheney alive, I know you can keep me alive,” I recall saying to Dr. Reiner as I went under, and by God he did. (A few days later, while I was still recovering, Cheney was back at GWU hospital, for the life-saving procedure mentioned above.)

A year or so, I met Cheney at a private event and mentioned that we had someone very important to us in common; when I said “Jon Reiner,” Cheney’s face lit up. Later that day, he diverted from his prepared remarks to admonish everyone in the audience that if you feel the slightest discomfort in the center of your chest, get yourself checked out immediately. As I know from bitter experience, heart attacks mimic other conditions, and your first reaction is denial. Cheney is living proof that denial is not an option. And Dr. Reiner is a miracle worker, exemplifying the best that American medicine has to offer.

There, just bought it. You should too.

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