TODAY   |  October 21, 2013

Dick Cheney: I was at peace with death

Former Vice President Dick Cheney tells TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie about his struggle with heart disease and how he was “at peace” with dying. His new book “Heart” chronicles his journey with heart health issues.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> former vice president dick cheney is out with a personal book called "heart" and it details his 35 year battle with heart disease including five ahea heart attacks and a heart transplant last year.

>> it's good to be here.

>> people haven't seen it in this detail. you talk about being in the end stages of your life. facing death. what was that like?

>> well, it was strangely peaceful. i had always anticipated after i had had that many years of heart disease that sooner or later time and technology would run out on me and that would be the end of my days and i would reach that point and then the new technology came available. a pump that would support my heart and keep me going until i could get on the transplant list and that's what happened.

>> you said that you had reconciled with death. i wondered what that meant? did you think about an after life? that kind of thing?

>> as i say i was at peace with myself. it wasn't frightening. it wasn't painful at all. i just reached that point where i knew my time had come and i was -- obviously all that's happened since then, the book itself is a story of hope. what we can now do with respect to somebody with heart disease . things that were not available when i had my first heart attack in '78 that saved my life.

>> one of the things your cardiologist writes about is some of the technology that ultimately lead to the pump that kept you alive before you could have the transplant. started in 1964 with government funding. so you can look at it as you're a living, breathing example of government investment .

>> sure but there's also the stamp developed by two doctors that came up with it and got the patent and sold it to johnson & johnson . and that was private initiative. government wasn't involved. the other thing i need to talk about the donor and it's so important. i wouldn't be here today without a donor and the donor's family. we need to encourage people to become donors. it's enormously important in terms of progress going forward.

>> you really open up your medical records and one of the things we learn in the back is back in 2000 there was a campaign doctor that looked at your heart and determined that you had normal cardiac function. this was as you were running for vice president. when we look now at your whole history, your own doctor actually kind of disagreeing with that. was that a misleading assessment?

>> no, i just think he was in a hurry to get the job and my doctor talked to a famous heart surgeon , great man and after that conversation he assured president -- or then governor bush that i was up to the task of running and serving as vice president. that turned out to be true. there's a debate over exactly what the status was at that time. it worked out fine obviously. i'm here.

>> you did take an extraordinary step which was to sign a letter of resignation in the event that you became incapacitated which suggested you were worried about this.

>> well, somebody with my history, possibility of a major heart attack that would be incapacitating or a stroke was a possibility. greater odds of that happening to me than somebody that didn't have my history. i look back at wilson who had a stroke 17 months before he left office and the way the constitution is set up we have provision for replacing the president if he gets sick but not the vice president. i thought it was important to take care of that. i signed a letter and gave it to my aid and said if i need ever arose he should give it to the president and the president could vacate the office and pick a replacement.

>> there's amazing antedotes in this book. i'm a huge fan of the show homeland. they had a plot line where the vice president had a pacemaker and a terrorist used it wire wireless ly and caused him to have a heart attack . i thought it was farfetched but you say your doctor was concerned about that.

>> yeah, some years before the homeland episode hi to have a new implant and we disabled the ability to control it remotely because of a potential terrorist attack .

>> was that your idea or the doctors idea?

>> the doctor. but i was sensitive to it. you become very sensitive about security, especially after 9/11.

>> we have to ask you about life as a new heart. we use heart to talk about the physical replacement but also hopes and dreams and essence of who we are. how has it changed you?

>> i wake up every morning with a smile on my face grateful for a day i never thought i would see. had the opportunity to do other things and write another book. spend time with my grand children. i have a granddaughter who is barrel racer. i drive the truck and get her to her events. i do a lot of fishing and punting. it's time that is very special because you realize it's a gift. it would not have happened except for the donor, the donor's family and great surgical team. my family that supported me through all of this.

>> do you feel like you're in overtime?

>> yes, i do. i really do.

>> well, former vice president dick cheney , thank you so much. this extraordinary book is called "heart." thank you.