WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney, experiencing heart problems for the third time since last November’s election, expected doctors to implant a pacemaker Saturday to even out a rapid heartbeat. Declaring himself otherwise fit, he said he would resign if ill health began hindering his work.
Looking trim and bit pale at a surprise White House news conference, Cheney tried to minimize his latest ailment by predicting he would return to work Monday and welcoming the prospect of a second term.
He has suffered four heart attacks over a quarter century, the last one in November, and was hospitalized in March to reopen a partially blocked artery — a health history that has become a nagging political question for the administration.
“The doctors have assured me there’s no reason why either the procedure or the device that’s being implanted should in any way inhibit my capacity to function as the vice president,” said Cheney, 60.
The odds were that he would need the pacemaker implanted, Cheney said, and he seemed resigned to it. “I look on this an insurance policy,” he said.
The 30 minute news conference was conducted with almost no notice, a rare breach of protocol that aides hoped would give Cheney a chance to deliver the news before it leaked. Bush advisers felt they had mishandled the November and March hospitalizations, which raised questions about whether Cheney was fit to remain as next in line to the presidency.
“If it were the doctors’ judgment that any of these developments constituted the kind of information that indicated I would not be able to perform, I would be the first to step down,” the vice president said. “I don’t have any interest in continuing in the post unless I’m able to perform adequately.”
Clearly trying to ease any voter concern, he repeated the sentiment in the news conference – and again for a Philadelphia radio station. “If the docs ever come in and say, ‘Look, we really think you ought to ease off,’ I’ll be the first to recognize that and step down and let somebody else take over,” Cheney told WPHT.
An unusually influential vice president, Cheney headed Bush’s transition team, played a major role in Cabinet and top personnel selections and chaired the White House energy task force. He is a top foreign policy adviser, the chief congressional lobbyist and sure to be at nearly every important White House meeting.
Cheney said he informed Bush on Tuesday that doctors were recommending the test and, probably, a pacemaker. The news was closely guarded, though some in the White House spent as much as two days preparing for Friday’s announcement, which included a statement from Cheney’s doctor.
In that statement, Dr. Jonathan Samuel Reiner said Cheney wore a heart monitor for 34 hours and the device detected four brief episodes of abnormally fast heartbeats. “Mr. Cheney felt none of these occurrences,” the statement said. Advisers later said Cheney wore the device over the weekend at home, not at work.
Saturday’s test will involve running thin wires through a vein in Cheney’s leg, and into his heart.
The wires have sensors that detect the way electricity ripples across the muscles that pump the heart, and will help doctors assess the risk of future arrhythmia. Doctors will decide on the spot whether to implant the pacemaker.
That device is about the size of a pager, weighing less than 80 grams, and is placed under the skin of the upper chest. It can correct an irregular heartbeat with a low-level shock.
More than 150,000 Americans, mostly over 60, have pacemakers. The devices are usually used to adjust slowing heartbeats; Cheney’s rapid heartbeat could be more serious.
“This has the potential to become a serious issue,” said Dr. Jeff A. Brinker, a cardiologist and pacemaker specialist at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. He called Cheney’s type of arrhythmia “more disturbing” than a normal pacing problem with the heart.
Cheney said the pacemaker was merely insurance against the possibility that his heart would again begin pumping out of time. “It may never actually be needed,” he said.
He calmly fielded 26 questions and showed some humor. With a crooked half-smile, he said the pacemaker is “an energy efficient device. It runs for five to eight years, without having to replace the batteries.” He also repeated that his wife, Lynne, “is in charge of my food supply.”
Aides say he has lost more than 20 pounds in recent months,
Cheney said Bush would have to decide who would be the GOP running mate in 2004 but “if I’m in shape to do it, and if my health permits, then I’d be perfectly happy to serve.”