Dick Cheney heart transplant: Age of transplant recipients debated

Photo: Gage Skidmore

(AP/ABC7) - Doctors say it is unlikely that former Vice President Dick Cheney got special treatment when he was given a new heart that thousands of younger people also were in line to receive.

It turns out, though, that Cheney isn't alone when it comes to his age group and the massive medical procedure.

After spending nearly two years on a waiting list, Cheney received a transplant Saturday. The 71-year-old underwent surgery at the same Virginia hospital where doctors implanted a small heart pump that has kept him alive the past few years.

In fact, as ABC Senior Political Correspondent Jonathan Karl reports, Cheney's wait for a heart lasted nearly 21 months, which is much longer than average. His doctor, who Karl spoke to in an exclusive interview, said that it was impossible for Cheney to get preferential treatment.

"I'll tell you, he made it explicitly clear that he was going to wait his turn," Dr. Jon Reiner, the cardiologist who accompanied Cheney during his surgery, told ABC News.

It was a year ago that the former VP told ABC News that he hadn't decided whether or not to continue pursuing a heart transplant.

"This has gotten good enough that we've got a lot of people living with the pump, and I'll have to make a decision at some point," Cheney said in the interview. Less than a year later, though, he went under the knife.

The call for the surgery came in the middle of the night Friday, Dr. Reiner told ABC News. However, he says called the surgery - which took about 7 hours to complete on Saturday, was still risky.

"The decision to have surgery is like going all-in in a poker game," Dr. Reiner told Karl. "There's great reward, but there's also great risk."

Cheney continues to recover from the surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. He had severe congestive heart failure and had suffered five heart attacks over the past 25 years. Some doctors also say that when it comes to this procedure, age is no longer a factor because of advances in technology.

"There is no age limit anymore," Georgetown University Prof. Robert Veatch, who teaches medical ethics, said. "The allocation is blood type, body time and time on the list."

The numbers back that up - in 2011, 2,232 people received heart transplants, and 392 of them were over the age of 65.

It's still unsettling for Veatch, though, who thinks that the low supply and high demand of hearts for transplants requires a different approach.

"I think fairness requires that older people consider stepping aside in favor of younger people," Veatch said. "I think that should be our policy in allocating organs."

Dr. Allen Taylor, cardiology chief at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, said Sunday that the heart transplant waitlist is "a very regimented and fair process, and heavily policed."

In the end, Cheney ended up being "excited" and "calm" about the surgery, which Dr. Reiner tells ABC News went "flawlessly."

"When the time came, there was no equivocation, no wait a little while, and let's think about it. It was let's go," Reiner said.