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Dick Cheney and his change of heart

Medicine has finally established what politics could not — Dick Cheney has a heart. True, it is not his own heart but at least it ticks inside him. Surely this was not what e. e. cummings meant when he wrote that poem — i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it.  But now that the former American vice president (and survivor of five heart attacks, the first at the age of 37) has gotten his heart transplant, inquiring minds are buzzing with questions.

Is it even a transplant? “Isn’t it more of a heart plant when you don’t have an original?” wondered comic Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Was there jugaad involved? He did wait 20 months for his new ticker but did the ex-Veep leapfrog over others to get it? “The ethical issues are not that he had a transplant, but who didn’t?” tweeted Dr Eric Topol, a cardiologist at Scripps Health in California. There is no proof that Cheney jumped the queue but the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation does recommend that patients be under 70. Cheney is 71.

Dick Cheney

Medicine has finally established what politics could not — Dick Cheney has a heart. Larry Downing/Reuters

What does it mean for the debate raging in America about the right to healthcare? “Old man Cheney and his million-dollar heart serve to remind us how ugly health care can be when it is a simple commodity given to friends in high places, even if he (possibly) did get the organ through routine channels,” wrote Kent Sepkowitz in The Daily Beast. “He now and forever is the poster child for why health care must be a right, not the latest luxe trinket for those few who can afford it.”

But the real million dollar question is does it mean he will have a change of heart. “Dick Cheney receives new, hopefully more empathetic heart,” was the headline on the blog Jezebel. “Maybe now he’ll become a Democrat,” chimed one letter writer to the Los Angeles Times. “Could a new anatomical heart lead to a figurative change of heart?” asked Alizah Salario  on The Daily Beast. “Could Tricky Dick start championing Obamacare and joining the Occupy Wall Street picket lines?”

Don’t scoff. It could happen.

Claire Sylvia received a heart and lung transplant in 1988. Then she suddenly started craving Kentucky Fried Chicken and beer and became much more aggressive and impulsive. Her donor — an 18-year-old boy who was killed in a car accident, with (here comes the clincher) chicken nuggets in his jacket pocket. Don’t believe it? You can watch the movie with Jane Seymour.

Cheney’s family said they do not know whose heart he got. But imagine, a friend said, what would happen if he got the heart of an American soldier brain-dead from being blown up in Iraq.  Then a casualty of the war he unleashed, based on fabricated intelligence, would beat inside of Cheney everyday. Would it drive him crazy?  Or would this be as another ungenerous letter writer to the Los Angeles Times put it be “the first time where a heart rejects an incompatible body”?

Gary Schwartz, a professor at the University of Arizona wrote a whole paper on the subject of cellular memory where personality traits of the donor pop up in the recipient which “cannot be explained as being the side effects of medicine or the stress of surgery.” His sample size was small – just ten patients but our own Deepak Chopra is a big believer in this theory of cellular memory. In his book Quantum Healing, he wrote that stress and trauma are stored as phantom memories inside cells all over the body. Emotions, long buried, might flare up suddenly. All these new-age schools of Reiki and chakra-balancing claim to release these ghosts.

If there has ever been a candidate in need for some heavy-duty chakra balancing it is Dick Cheney. The man has presided over the Bush years and beyond as a Darth Vader of an imperial presidency. He was so thoroughly scary he provided Bush cover. At one point only 13 percent of America had a favourable impression of him.

But the physical transformation of Dick Cheney started happening long before the actual transplant. A few years ago he got a mechanical pump that left him without a pulse although it enabled him to go on book tour with his memoir. The thought of a Dick Cheney who has no pulse still walking among us was downright spooky. While his politics remained as unrepentantly hawkish as ever, the photographs of him, gaunt and frail, clutching a cane, made him look like any other aging war criminal, a Goliath who had turned into a sickly David. He could still snarl, but it didn’t quite have that old toxic vim that whipped the Impeach Cheney  crowd into a self-righteous rage. He even said a few supportive things about his lesbian daughter and same-sex marriage.  Liberals all over the world realised they needed to find themselves another prototype for implacable evil because their current model was literally falling apart.

According to press reports Cheney is adjusting well to his new heart. He is able to stand. There is no word yet on whether he is any nicer. Any post-op niceness usually stems from a sense of gratitude for a new lease of life, transplant cardiologist Tracy Stevens tells Salario in The Daily Beast.

“They take better care of themselves because they feel better, and they feel a sense of responsibility that they are respecting their donor as well,” says Stevens. “I think that’s the personality of the recipient, and being grateful for this wonderful gift of life they’ve received.”

Gratitude was never  Dick Cheney’s strong suit. But we’ll be waiting to see if it manifests itself in this newly restored Dick Cheney. And we wish him well. He’s a lucky man. Meanwhile our thoughts should also go out to the heart that now ticks inside the former VP. Jon Stewart wickedly quipped “Innocent heart sentenced to life in Cheney.”

That might be a little cruel, but this is one Braveheart, surely.