IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Larry King: How a heart attack snuck up and nearly killed me

In a new book, the talk show host tells how he missed the warning signs of coronary disease. It almost cost him his life. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

More than 60 million people in the United States currently suffer from some form of heart disease. In an effort to reverse this deadly trend, CNN talk show host Larry King has joined forces with some of Hollywood's top celebrities to reveal their personal stories of struggling with and overcoming heart disease. King, a heart disease sufferer, was invited on the "Today" show to discuss his book, "Taking on Heart Disease." Here's an excerpt:

February 24, 1987
I had never spent much time thinking about my heart. But when I did, it was always the other heart — the romantic one. So let’s get to it right here in the first paragraph: Not paying attention to the heart (the one inside your chest) and the warnings it will send is a theme in the pages to come.

I always believed that heart attacks happened to other people. If I ever did witness one or think about one, it came to me from a television or movie screen. Redd Foxx had the best heart attack in Sanford and Son when he put both hands on his chest, fell into his chair, gasped for breath, and said, “This is it! This is the big one! I’m coming to you, Elizabeth!” He was fine at the end of the show because, well, he had faked the whole thing. Besides, he couldn’t die because it was a hit show and he had to be back for another episode the following week. I also remember when Marlon Brando walked with his grandchild through a vegetable garden in The Godfather, and suddenly he, too, became short of breath, clutched his chest, and collapsed (unlike Redd Foxx, Brando’s character had a real heart attack). Before this, there were all those black and white movies where the hero would lean against a wall, fist pressed against his shirt, and say to a beautiful woman, “That’s okay, baby, go ahead, I’ll catch up.” Then he’d stagger a few feet before falling to his knees and dying — just as the violins started playing.

Those are the “Hollywood Heart Attacks.” They look good on a television or movie screen, but they don’t accurately portray what happens in the real world. Instead, most true-life heart attacks are a lot more low-key. But I’ll tell you this: While not as dramatic as what Hollywood produces, the low-key ones get your attention pretty damn fast when they happen to you. And like the drama on the screen, everyone figures a heart attack — or any type of heart problem, for that matter — always happens to someone else. I never thought about it any more than that, which presumes that I even thought about it at all.

In early 1987 I was smoking three packs of Nat Sherman cigarettes a day, eating fried this-and-that, enjoying lamb chops with lots of fat because that always improves the taste, ordering banana cream or lemon meringue pie for dessert — and feeling absolutely fine. But when I look back at the events leading up to that day when you-know-what happened, I remember people giving me “the look.” It was always followed by something like “Larry, you oughta (fill in the blank: stop smoking/eat more fish/get some exercise),” and I always responded with a completely phony appreciative nod and continued doing what I was doing. I guess that line about “everything you need to see is always right in front of you but you gotta open your eyes to see it” really does hold true. But if you don’t see it, well, that’s why so many people are a part of this book.

On the night before “It” happened, America’s chief doctor, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, leaned over to me after an interview on television and said, “Larry, you don’t look very good.” I changed the subject, made small talk, said good-bye at the studio door, and forgot about it. But later, during my late-night radio show, my right shoulder really started aching. The guest that night was author David Halberstam, who leaned over to me after the hour and said, “Larry, you don’t...”

You know what he said.

The pain stayed with me through the night. In the early morning, after a fitful off-and-on sleep, I woke and realized it wasn’t my shoulder that was hurting now, but my stomach. I called a cardiologist I had seen in Baltimore who said that it might be a gallbladder problem, but whatever it is, I should get to a hospital sooner rather than later. It was 8:00 a.m. and I had reached the point where I knew something was wrong. Not once did it ever occur to me, though, that I was actually having a heart attack. Whatever was happening, I figured it was probably my stomach and would, no doubt, be something for which I could get a pill or an injection and be back home in no time at all. Yeah, I know.

I called my television producer, Tammy Haddad, and said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” Then I gulped down some Maalox, thinking it might help a bad stomach or a bad gall-bladder. Within a few minutes, Tammy was downstairs to take me to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital. As we crossed the Potomac River on the Memorial Bridge en route to the hospital, I lit the always-necessary cigarette.

By the time we arrived, the pain was gone.

“The hell with it,” I said. “Let’s go back. I’m fine.” Tammy, who has never been known for her quiet ways or meekness, suggested otherwise. But I told her if there was a line, I wasn’t going to wait and I’d be right out.

Well, there was a line. So I did a 180 and, true to my word, came back out the door, where a cop was telling Tammy she couldn’t park in the driveway because this is where ambulances pull up. I was about to let her know I was back and we could leave when she pulled away. In keeping with my Type A view of life, I turned around and went back in, expecting to find a way to avoid the damn line, while Tammy found a parking spot somewhere on M Street.

I wasn’t there for more than a minute before a young Black guy in a green hospital coat came up to me and asked if I was feeling okay. I fought back the inclination to say, “Look, I’m standing in an ER on a Tuesday morning when I could be at home. How do you think I’m feeling?” Then he moved in closer and looked right at me. “Are you a cardiac patient?”

I thought of all the people ahead of me and figured that if you’re a cardiac patient, you must get into something like the express checkout lane at the grocery store (okay, “checkout” is the wrong word). Besides, the doctor I had called in Baltimore was a cardiologist, so it wasn’t a complete lie. I told the guy I was.

“Let’s go,” he said, and we went through a set of double doors, where a bunch of men and women in blue coats and green coats and white coats were working on patients. I was placed on a table, wires were hooked to my chest and arms and legs, a blood pressure monitor was put on one arm, a blood oxygen monitor was put on one finger, blood was taken from an artery, I was given oxygen and asked about 20 questions regarding allergies/name/who should be called/what I was feeling and where I was feeling it — to name just a few things that occurred all at once.

One of the ER physicians, Dr. Warren Levy, stood over me, looked at the results from the tests that had been taken so far, and said, “I don’t like how you look,” an observation I was really getting tired of hearing. I wasn’t feeling any pain and told him so, but he suggested we wait 30 minutes or so to see if the symptoms returned. By this time, Tammy was in the emergency room with me, as was my radio producer. I figured, “Well, the morning is shot anyway, and maybe I can be out of here in time to make my lunch appointment at Duke Zeibert’s downtown.” They took an EKG and reviewed the page with the blood gases (a measurement of oxygen and other things in the blood I can’t pronounce) that had been taken from the catheter in my arm.

Suddenly, I felt my right shoulder tighten. I nodded to Dr. Levy, who had been joined by another cardiologist working in the ER that day, Dr. Richard Katz. They did another EKG and the results were placed on a lighted board across the room. Again, they checked the new measurements of my blood gases. Lying on the gurney, I could see them point between the two pages and then, as if on cue, they turned at the same time to look at me. “This ain’t gonna be good,” I said as they both started heading in my direction.

“Mr. King,” Dr. Levy said, “there is only one way to tell you this. You’re having a heart attack and you’re having it this minute.” Even though I was lying down, the words knocked me off my feet. I’ve heard them every day since that February morning. It’s as though someone took out The Sledge Hammer of Reality and swung it right into my face, knocking me down and sending 54 years of denial and illusion into the air. Now, only the real me was left, and I was facing the real truth. My mind was going 100 miles an hour. To me I said, “You’ve been fooling yourself and you didn’t see it.” To the doctors who were standing on either side of the gurney, I asked, “Am I going to die?”

“You’re in the best place to have a heart attack,” Dr. Levy assured me, “and you got here quickly.” As he spoke, I wasn’t taking any of the good news in. I was in an emergency room and I couldn’t get past the idea that everyone is there because of bad news. I was scared.

“There’s another thing,” Dr. Levy said. He was bending down as he spoke. “We are one of 25 hospitals in the United States using an experimental drug called tPA.” I think he started to explain what the hell tPA stood for, but I couldn’t have cared less about the 25-syllable words he used. What I do remember was him saying it had yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and, as a result, he was going to have to read something and read it fast because if tPA was going to be given to me and if it was going to work, it was going to have to be done as soon as possible. All I got from that conversation was that tPA would break the blood clot that was causing the heart attack. So as soon as he was done with the spiel, a clipboard with a single typed page was placed in front of me. After I signed it, a witness added his signature and tPA started flowing into my bloodstream. Within 5 minutes, the pain disappeared. Today, administering tPA to people having heart attacks is standard procedure in a hospital emergency room. Yeah, I’m one of the trailblazers. Columbus sailed the Atlantic. Lewis and Clark crossed the country. I took tPA. Same thing.

The fact of the matter was I had plenty of warning signs that my heart was in trouble (as it turned out, the inferior--obviously an appropriate name — wall of the left ventricle wasn’t getting enough blood). Most heart attack patients have some indication that something isn’t right. Six years earlier I had been walking to the New York Hilton from — where else — Nat Sherman’s Tobacconist when my chest felt heavy. I stopped for a minute along Sixth Avenue to take a rest, and the pain went away. But as soon as I started walking again, the pressure returned to my chest. By the time I got back to my room at the Hilton, I canceled all the appointments and meetings that had been scheduled, preferring to just lie down and take it easy.

When I returned to Washington, I went to George Washington University Hospital (the same place where I was right now) for a checkup, and that’s when I first learned I had heart disease. An angiogram (a picture of the heart’s blood vessels and arteries that is taken with x-rays after dye is injected into the arteries through a catheter that is threaded up through the body) revealed I had one artery that was more than 75 percent blocked, another in trouble, and a third in pretty good shape. My doctors suggested I take a stress test every 6 months and give serious thought to changing my lifestyle (quit the cigarettes, get more exercise, eat better, blah-blah-blah). I was also told to take a nitroglycerin tablet called Nitrostat whenever I felt chest pain.

The nephew of one of my boyhood friends, Herbie Cohen, was Dr. David Blumenthal, a New York–based cardiologist who looked at my tests and recommended a Baltimore cardiologist for me to see for the follow-up tests and exams. That was the guy I had called earlier that morning.

When a doctor asked me during my earlier checkup about heart disease in my family, I remember the concern on his face when I said my father had died of it at age 43. Did any of this sink in? Let me put it this way: I left the doctor’s office thinking my dad died a long time ago when medicine wasn’t as good as it is now. In fact, I lit a cigarette thinking about it.

Yes, the word “denial” is appropriate here.

Dr. Levy and Dr. Katz were now standing over me saying the heart attack had passed, but they wanted to keep me in the hospital for a few days. My daughter Chaia was at my side, and I remember telling her to get in touch with my agent, Bob Woolf, and let him know what had happened and where I was. Suddenly, a lot of things had to be done: Replacements needed to be found for my CNN show; a substitute host had to located for my Mutual Broadcasting System radio show; affiliates had to be contacted before news got out about what had happened. Most of all, some sense of “everything’s under control” had to be maintained even though, from my perspective, nothing was under control — and if it was, certainly nothing was going to be the same ever again.

The young man who had brought me into the ER was now at my side, and I learned he was assigned to look for people coming in who were pallid and pale — just one sign of a heart attack about to happen. Looking back, I guess I was pale, hence all the comments for the past 24 hours. “Son of a bitch,” I thought to myself as they wheeled me down a hall, “it has happened to me.”

Excerpted from "Taking on Heart Disease" by Larry King. Coyright © 2004 by Spotlight Health. Used by permission of by Rodale, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.