Cheney Gets Heart Transplant After 20-Month Wait

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has undergone a heart transplant in a hospital near Washington. Cheney, 71, was on the waiting list for a heart for 20 months, which is longer than the average wait time in the Washington area. His prognosis remains uncertain.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney underwent a heart transplant yesterday. Now, he's recovering at a hospital outside Washington. Cheney's had a history of heart problems, and here to talk about this is NPR science correspondent Rob Stein. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Susan.

STAMBERG: What do we know so far about this situation?

STEIN: We don't have a lot of details. The hospital's been referring all the questions to Cheney's - former vice president's staff. And what they're saying is that he underwent the hospital yesterday and he's recovering in intensive care at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia. He's in intensive care, but that's pretty typical for somebody who's had a heart transplant.

STAMBERG: Yeah. So, he has had so many heart problems. Is it something like five heart attacks.

STEIN: That's right. He had his first heart attack when he was 37 years old. He had four more since then. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery, lots of other procedures. And then he had this little heart pump implanted in his chest in 2010, which has been keeping him alive ever since.

STAMBERG: This is a man who's 71 years old and that really does seem to be an advanced age for a procedure as complicated as this. So, how unusual is it for somebody who's 70-plus to get a transplant?

STEIN: Right, right. Most transplant centers will only do heart transplants on somebody who's 65 years old or younger. So, it is somewhat unusual. But there are a number of transplant centers around the country that are willing to do it. And it is becoming more common as the procedure's gotten better and as the population has been aging. More and more baby boomers are getting to the age where they might need transplants. And there are about 2,000 transplants done each year. Maybe a few hundred of them are people over the age of 65.

STAMBERG: You know, here's a question that naturally occurs, because donated organs for transplants are very scarce. So, the vice president's transplant could really raise some questions about preferential treatment, whether he got any special treatment. How are recipients, heart transplant recipients, chosen?

STEIN: Right, yeah. There is an ethical debate about this, about whether, how wise it is to do heart transplants of somebody of this age, 'cause, as you said, they are scarce. Hearts are hard to come by, so there's some discussion about whether they should be better off putting them into younger people. But the way it works is there's this complicated system in which basically you try to match the people's body size and also their blood type. And once they get beyond that, it goes to the sickest person who is the closest to where the donor came from.

STAMBERG: Wow. And what about waiting lists in this area?

STEIN: Yeah, the waiting list, the waiting time varies around the country. In the Washington area, it's about nine months on average. And the vice president, the former vice president's aide said he waited about 20 months.

STAMBERG: Yeah. So, briefly, what is the outlook for the former vice president? What can he expect?

STEIN: Yeah, it's going to be a long haul. The next couple of months are going to be really tough and then he's going to be in the hospital for at least several weeks, if not more than that. And then he's got a long recovery. Plus, you know, he's at risk for infections and rejection is the biggest concern.

STAMBERG: Um-hum. But if it's successful, he could go another how many years?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. A lot of transplant patients get 10, 15 years out of a new heart.

STAMBERG: Thanks very much. Rob Stein, NPR science and health correspondent.

STEIN: Thanks for having me.

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