WASHINGTON - Republican Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney, who has a long history of cardiac disease, suffered a mild heart attack early yesterday, his fourth, and underwent surgery to open a clogged artery at George Washington University Hospital.
Cheney, 59, admitted himself to the hospital in the pre-dawn hours with chest and shoulder pain. After tests showed a heart artery had narrowed since his last checkup in 1996, doctors performed a balloon angioplasty to clear the blockage and inserted a stainless steel "stent" to keep the artery open.
Doctors said tests showed a slight elevation of cardiac enzymes in Cheney's blood, a marker that signifies heart muscle damage and, thus, heart attack.
"There was a very slight heart attack," said Alan Wasserman, interim chief of medicine at the hospital.
Cheney called "Larry King Live" from the hospital last night. "I feel good and everything's looking good," he said. "I should be out in a day or two."
Asked whether the heart attack would hamper his ability to serve as vice president, Cheney said there was "no doubt about my serving. All we have to do now is get elected."
Earlier, Wasserman also said Cheney would remain in the hospital for two to three days and should be able to return to normal activity within a few weeks.
"His prognosis is excellent," Wasserman said. "He should get back to normal functioning and normal activity in a few weeks at most. He will have no limitations at all from our standpoint."
Cheney has had three heart attacks since 1978 and underwent quadruple bypass surgery after his third heart attack 12 years ago. Because of his history, questions about his health immediately arose when he was tapped by Texas Gov. George W. Bush last summer to be the GOP vice presidential candidate, as they did in 1989 when he became President George Bush's secretary of defense.
In the midst of the post-election showdown that continued to percolate yesterday, Governor Bush was quick to play down Cheney's sudden health problems and allay any fears about his running mate's fitness for office.
"Dick Cheney is healthy," Bush said in a public statement before reporters in Austin at midday. "He did not have a heart attack."
But by late yesterday afternoon, GW doctors - who had avoided using the term just hours earlier at a news briefing and did not reveal the full nature of his condition or surgery - acknowledged that Cheney had, in fact, suffered a slight heart attack.
The misleading information was reminiscent of the hospital's actions nearly two decades ago, when it greatly underplayed the gravity of President Ronald Reagan's condition after he had been shot, almost fatally, and rushed to the GW hospital emergency room.
The stent that was inserted into Cheney's artery is a mesh cylinder that is crimped onto a balloon, threaded through an artery in his upper leg up to the cardiac artery and imbedded into its wall. The balloon is deflated and removed, but the stent stays in place to keep the artery open and allow blood to flow more easily.
Wasserman said the procedure, which required local anesthesia only, and Cheney's quick reaction to his chest pains prevented any "significant heart damage."
Doctors say it is not uncommon for those who have had bypass surgery to need further surgical procedures later, either a minimally invasive procedure such as the balloon angioplasty that Cheney underwent or a repeat bypass.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, Cheney's personal doctor who performed the procedure yesterday, said he did not believe Cheney would need any further surgery such as a repeat bypass. But doctors plan to monitor his health through an exercise stress test in three to four months.
After suffering his first heart attack at age 37, during his run in 1978 for Wyoming's only congressional seat, Cheney quit his 20-year smoking habit and hit the campaign trail again within six weeks.
He had heart attacks in 1984 and 1988, after which he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
Dr. Roger S. Blumenthal, director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that, although Cheney has been on a regimen of diet, exercise and numerous medications to keep his heart problems in check, "this clearly is a new change in his pattern that signifies [he and his doctors] have to be more aggressive in his management."
Wasserman said he did not believe whatever stress Cheney was experiencing from the continuing presidential battle played any role in his health problems.
Although he had not been a major figure in the Florida recount battle, Cheney, who had been at his home in McLean, Va., for the Thanksgiving holiday, had been overseeing Bush's quietly proceeding transition plans.
He and his wife, Lynne, went to the hospital yesterday about 4 a.m., hours after the Florida Supreme Court delivered what appeared at the time to be a severe blow to the Bush campaign with a ruling that hand-counted votes in several heavily Democratic counties must be included in Florida's official tally.