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HEALTH CARE

Cheney's New Heart

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In this Aug. 31, 2011 file photo, former Vice President Dick Cheney is interviewed in New York. ((AP Photo/Richard Drew, File))

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had a heart transplant Saturday, has a long history of heart disease – and has beaten the odds every time so far.

Cheney, 71, was recovering at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, AP first reported on Saturday. He’s survived five heart attacks – the first one when he was 37 and running for his first term in Congress as a representative from Wyoming.  In 2010 he had a device installed called a left ventricular assist device or LVAD. LVADs help a weakened heart pump and they are often called a “bridge to transplant”. Cheney went on the waiting list for a new heart after that.

 

Heart transplants are still fairly uncommon – The American Heart Association says in 2009, 2,211 heart transplants were performed in the United States.

The one-year survival rate for men who get heart transplants is 88 percent, the Heart Association says; 73 percent of men who get heart transplants live three years.  Among the risks are organ rejection, which happens when the patient’s body attacks the new heart as alien. “The most frequent cause of death in the first 30 days after transplant is primary graft dysfunction. This occurs if the new donor heart fails and isn't able to function,” the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health, says on its web site.

Cheney's had quadruple bypass surgery -- that means he had four veins grafted around his heart because of clogged heart arteries. He had an aneurysm -- a weak spot on a blood vessel -- in his leg and he's had angiolasty to clear out clogged arteries twice.

 

Cheney once had an implanted defibrillator to monitor his heart and shock it back into a normal rhythm if needed after he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation - a common but serious condition that causes the heart's upper chambers to flutter. This worsened into congestive heart failure, chronic condition in which the heart gradually weakens. A heart transplant is often the only long-term treatment for severe heart failure.

Cheney waited longer than the usual year or so for a new heart. Such transplants must come from people who have just died with a healthy heart who have either previously agreed to be organ donors or whose family has agreed to donate organs. There must be a close match of blood type and usually size -- it wouldn't work to implant a baby's heart into an adult.

Usually the donor is close by, too, as hours and minutes count in keeping a transplanted organ viable.

 “Although the former vice president and his family do not know the identity of the donor, they will be forever grateful for this lifesaving gift,” an aide, Kara Ahern, said in a statement.

 

While Cheney continues to beat the odds, it's unlikely he beat anyone else to the heart he got. He waited longer than usual and it's likely he received a heart that was not suitable for a younger patient. AP reports on the debate about age and heart transplants.

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