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Dr. Manny: Despite age, Cheney good candidate for heart transplant

Seventy-one  year-old former vice president Dick Cheney is recovering after a heart transplant, his office said Saturday night.

Cheney is recovering in the intensive care unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., said aide Kara Ahern. Cheney does not know the donor’s identity, Ahern added, and he has been on the transplant list for more than 20 months.

Cheney is known for his extensive heart problems – he suffered his fifth heart attack in 2010 – his first was at the age of 37. He also suffers from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat.

“I think this was the proper treatment for him,” said Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor at FoxNews.com. “After a very long time of chronic health problems, ultimately, his heart needed to be replaced, and this was the only way to do it.”

Alvarez said Cheney’s overall strong physical health made him a good candidate for a transplant, despite his age.

“The treatments he had prior to the transplant allowed him to lead a full life,” Alvarez added.

He had bypass surgery in 1998 and two subsequent angioplasties. In 2001, he had a special pacemaker implanted in his chest. In 2010, he had a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted for treatment of end-stage heart failure.

The LVAD is a battery-operated, mechanical pump-type device that's surgically implanted to help a weakened heart sustain life.

About 5 million Americans have congestive heart failure, where the heart weakens over time — often as a result of heart attacks — and cannot pump enough blood. Heart transplants are one solution, but few patients find a donor and many are too old or sick for a transplant.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA) the device is sometimes called a “bridge to transplant” because it can “buy time” for the patient.

“In most cases, people who have LVADS are waiting or are being considered for a heart transplant,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the NYU Women’s Heart Program in New York City, told FoxNews.com at the time. ”The device helps people with heart failure that have really reduced heart function due to heart muscle damage. Every time he (Cheney) had a heart attack, some amount of heart muscle was damaged,” she said.

A common type of LVAD has a tube that pulls blood from the left ventricle into a pump, the AHA said on its website. The pump then sends blood into the aorta (the large blood vessel leaving the left ventricle), which helps the weakened ventricle.

“The interesting thing about the LVAD is that people are really mobile,” Goldberg said. “It’s small enough so people can walk around with it.”

Alvarez said he believes the future of heart medicine will be different for patients like Cheney with the revolution of stem cells.

Ahern said Cheney will forever be grateful for this gift. 

The Associated Press, Jessica Ryen Doyle and Karlie Pouliot contributed to this report.