Former Vice President Dick Cheney has received a donor heart after 20 months of being on the waiting list. The 71-year-old had a successful operation at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia and is currently recovering from the procedure.
“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,” said aide Kara Ahern in a written statement.
Cheney has had heart problems for a good portion of his life, having had his first of five heart attacks at the age of 37. Since, he’s had multiple procedures and interventions keeping his heart pumping: he’s had coronary stents to prop open blocked heart arteries, a heart bypass surgery to re-route blood flow around diseased arteries, an implantable heart defibrillator to safeguard potentially dangerous rhythms, and an implanted artificial pump called a ventricular assist device (VAD), which takes over the pumping function of a diseased heart for patients in end-stage heart failure.
The device, which was implanted in July 2010, is often used as a bridge to a transplant while keeping the rest of the organs in good enough working order to accept a donor heart. It was at that time that Cheney was put on the list for a heart transplant. Patients on VAD devices can experience blood clots and infections, and it is unclear whether a complication with the device may have moved Cheney higher on the list, Julie Steenjuysen and Debra Sherman report for Reuters. "You can't leapfrog the system," said Dr. Allen Taylor, cardiology chief at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. "It's a very regimented and fair process and heavily policed."
Although there is a debate over the age of patients on the list, Cheney’s waiting period was longer than average; he was on the list for about 20 months, as opposed to the six to 12 month average waiting period. Because of his old age, some would have preferred the heart to have gone to a younger patient, who could have gotten potentially more years of use. The current system, however, takes into account the time on the waiting list, medical need, and location to determine the odds of scoring a new heart. Some patients go on multiple lists, provided that they can travel quickly to a location at which a heart become available. Cheney must have been in optimal physical condition, including a healthy liver and kidneys to qualify for a new heart, stated Marilynn Marchione for the Huffington Post.
"We have done several patients hovering around age 70 although that's near 'the upper limit' for a transplant," said Dr. Mariell Jessup, a University of Pennsylvania heart failure specialist and American Heart Association spokeswoman.
The majority of transplants are done in 50- to 64-year olds, reported Liz Szaba and Richard Wolf for USA Today. Nevertheless, older patients who have had the procedure have lived for many years on new hearts; a 79-year-old man in Canada lived more than a decade on a new heart, dying in 2010 at the age 90.
More than 3,000 Americans are on the list for a new heart at any given time, while only about 2,000 donor hearts are available each year, according to the National Heart Lung & Blood Institute. About 330 die each year before a heart become available. More than 70 percent of heart transplant recipients live at least five years, but rates drop for patients over 65.