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Dick Cheney Gets a New Heart . . . But Should the Tin Man Have Gotten It Instead?

dick cheney portrait with usa flagWhen news spread of how former Vice President Dick Cheney underwent a heart transplant procedure in late March, it reopened an age-old debate: Is he simply too old to be getting a new heart? Should that heart have gone to someone more “deserving” instead; and by deserving, I mean someone younger who has more years ahead with a new heart, and the opportunity for a brand new outlook on life? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

The Statute of Limitations on Hearts

Actually, there is no hard limit to how old a new heart recipient can be. And even though the general rule of thumb is no patient over 60, some clinics have exceptions and do not judge the decision on age alone.  Instead, it matters mostly on how long you have been on the waiting list, where you live, and how badly you need it.  Each piece of criteria is weighted similarly in importance; though the urgency of a transplant can largely influence the decision more so than the other two.
Was Cheney Favored?

Dick Cheney has had heart failure for over 25 years, and in that span of time has suffered from five heart attacks.  Undergoing countless procedures, including heart bypasses, angioplasty to open his arteries, a pacemaker, and leg surgery, Cheney’s heart continued to fail.  Despite Cheney being 71 years old (well over the generally accepted age of 60), he was put on the waiting list for a new heart.  When it was revealed that he had undergone the transplant successfully, furor erupted over his age.  Some even believe that he was helped by favoritism due to his political status. But doctors insist that the whole thing was fair and square.

The Waiting Game

The average time a patient remains on a waiting list before a matching heart is found is between three to six months.  As mentioned previously, age is not a definitive determining factor in heart transplants.  Dick Cheney was on the waiting list for over 20 months, which is much more than the average person has to wait.  Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to get new hearts when they need it most. And even though over 300 heart transplants are performed each year, there are more than 3,100 Americans on the waiting list; and over 300 die before a new heart can be found.
New Heart, New Life?

The average American gets to enjoy an extra 10 to 15 years of life with a heart transplant; and the anger over Cheney’s transplant being a “waste of a heart” brings to light certain ethical questions . . . such as whether or not one deserves a new chance at life even if it means just a few years. But being those are “ethical” questions, we aren’t given the option to decide. We may judge, we may sympathize; but in the end, it was the doctors who made the decision to essentially give more life to a suffering human being.

And, I guess we can also have a little fun. Jokes were cracked about how Dick Cheney actually has a heart now (a reference to his signature dry humor) and might become a Democrat after all this is said and done.

The good news is that reports show Cheney is on the road to recovery, though that road will be filled with countless visits to the doctor. Even though physicians try to minimize the use of anti-rejection drugs in older heart transplant patients to reduce the chance of infection, the former Vice President will have to take those types of medications daily.  Weekly heart biopsies are also planned to ensure that his body is not rejecting the heart.

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