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Cheney Suffers a 'Very Slight' Heart Attack

Vice presidency: GOP nominee has a cardiac procedure. Problem was confirmed in later tests.


WASHINGTON — Dick Cheney, the Republican vice presidential nominee, suffered what physicians described as a "very slight" heart attack Wednesday and underwent surgery to improve blood flow to his heart, providing yet another breath-catching twist in the political tumult that has been churning since the election.

Initially, doctors and George W. Bush declared that Cheney, 59--who has a history of heart trouble--did not have a heart attack. But doctors revised their diagnosis after a later set of blood tests indicated a "minimally elevated level" in heart muscle enzymes. The presence of these enzymes indicates heart muscle damage--a heart attack.

In a brief telephone interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" Wednesday night, Cheney said, "I feel good and everything's looking good." He said taking the precaution of going to the hospital at the first sign of trouble "is one of the things that I've learned over the years. Anything that might be cardiac-related, you have to check it out . . . . That's good advice for everybody."

Cheney's health was the focus of much attention when Bush selected him last summer to be his running mate. At that time, Cheney had suffered three heart attacks, the first at age 37. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1988.

On Wednesday, in explaining the change in their earlier diagnosis, doctors stressed that the definition of heart attack was changed last year by the American Heart Assn. to reflect "any enzyme elevation" measured in the blood.

"Over a year ago, this amount of enzyme elevation would not have been considered by most people signs of a heart attack," said Dr. Alan Wasserman, professor of cardiology at George Washington University Hospital, where Cheney--experiencing chest discomfort--checked himself in before dawn Wednesday.

"To put this into some perspective, in someone that has had a significant heart attack, the levels would be somewhere 20 to 50 times higher," Wasserman added.

On Wednesday, physicians performed a cardiac catheterization, inserting a permanent stent--a tiny scaffolding-like device--to widen a narrowed artery.

The Bush camp sought to downplay the potentially serious nature of Cheney's hospitalization, putting a positive face on his condition and his prognosis and initially insisting--based on doctors' views early in the day--that Cheney had not suffered a heart attack.

Bush, speaking to reporters in Austin, Texas, said: "We had a very good conversation. He sounded really strong. Secretary Cheney will make a great vice president . . . and America is beginning to see how steady and strong he is."

"Dick Cheney is healthy," he added. "He did the right thing. . . . Anybody who's had heart conditions will tell you if there's any signs, any warning signs at all, it's important to have it checked out, and that's what he's done."

Bush and his aides dismissed questions about the stability of the GOP team, and whether they were considering alternatives should Cheney's condition keep him from serving.

Asked whether it would be prudent to have a backup nominee, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes replied: "No, it's not." She added that Cheney has had similar pains in recent years, but not since Bush picked him to be his running mate.

President Clinton said he hoped Cheney will be "well and fine. . . . I need to call him and write him a note."

Doctors at the hospital said they did not believe that stress related to postelection events contributed to Cheney's heart attack--although stress is a known risk factor in heart disease. Cheney's heart attack apparently occurred hours after Florida's Supreme Court decided to permit manual ballot recounts in some Florida counties, a key victory for Vice President Al Gore.

Cheney, in the CNN interview, said he had "not found the last couple of weeks as stressful as, say, the Gulf War. . . . My time in the Pentagon during the Gulf War was far more stressful."

He added that his recent hospitalization should not affect his ability to serve as vice president. "There shouldn't be any problems of any kind like that. Obviously, I always follow my doctor's advice. . . . [There's] no doubt about my serving. All we have to do is get elected."

And he offered a joke, referring to the recounting of ballots in Florida: "I can report when they got in there they didn't find any pregnant chads."

Wasserman said Cheney was expected to spend two to three days in the hospital, but should have no restrictions after he leaves.

Dr. Jonathan Reiner, Cheney's personal physician, described Cheney's heart function as "moderately impaired," and "consistent with his history of prior heart attacks," stressing there had "been no change" as a result of Wednesday's episode.

Experts called the stent procedure routine, saying it could have prevented a more serious heart attack.

Impaired blood flow through the arteries leading to the heart is a common cause of chest pains, such as those suffered by Cheney. The decreased blood flow reduces the amount of oxygen that heart muscles receive.

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