Long-time readers of my work will know that I have whipped Dick Cheney like a mule for years. The old man has always seemed like some nightmare combination of Cardinal Richelieu, Heinrich Himmler, and Dr. Strangelove. He represented the personification of that distinct madness that gripped America in the years between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, and he played the part admirably. Even Republican strategists made Darth Vader jokes about the man. He had an amazing ability to harness the fear, paranoia and ultra-nationalism of the era, to crystallize it into a perfect diamond of vicious jingoism, and use it toward the Bush administration’s own warped ends.
So it’d be easy to just say the man, who received a heart transplant this past weekend, should have been denied purely on ethical grounds. But of course, that’s a slippery slope that even Cheney’s worst enemies don’t want to go down. Who decides who gets saved and who doesn’t? No one should have the power to make that call. But the fact that a 71-year-old five-time heart attack sufferer received a heart after a 20-month wait does raise other questions about the ability of the powerful and privileged to move to the top of a transplant list that is supposed to be based solely on triage and first come, first served. Other people have waited just as long as Cheney and died waiting.
Indeed, 18 people die each and every day while waiting on a new heart, many of them children. And when it comes to those kids, an even uglier disparity arises. Of white children waiting on a new heart, 14 percent will die waiting. Among black children, the number is 19 percent, and among Hispanics, an appalling 21 percent. But most heart transplants occur in patients that are 50 to 64 years of age, which brings us back to the former Vice President. At 71, Cheney is part of a tiny group — just 14 percent of the 2,300 heart transplants performed each year — of people who receive heart transplants over the age of 65. Due to several factors, especially the toll such a surgery can take on a body and the relative time left of such a patient (Grim, I know, but that’s triage for you.), people over the age of 65 are rarely considered good candidates for heart transplants. Most of the handful of senior citizens who receive such transplants do so in emergency situations, where their immediate necessity moves them higher up the list. But that wasn’t the case with Cheney — an aide told news outlets after the surgery that the man had been waiting for 20 months.
So, how does a man over the age of 65 who has had previous open-heart surgery land a heart when younger candidates drop dead waiting?