Two Hearts

Darth Cheney has no pulse.

I’m going to eschew here the easy, inevitable swipes; I’m not in the mood, and anyway it’s not like I haven’t indulged in that sort of thing before. Truth is the man is very sick, and is without a pulse only because that’s the last place the doctors can go short of removing and discarding his pretty-much-finished heart, and fitting him with a new one. And Darth doesn’t know yet whether that’s where he wants to go.

Even before I read the news I had known that something not very good at all was up with the man physically, because I had come across recent news photos of a shockingly shrunken, reduced Cheney. This was not the full-bodied, smug, sneering Cheney, who for so long had simmered there in my mind. This was, quite clearly, a truly failing corporeal container, preparing to expel the spirit.

I can’t bring myself to believe in an afterlife, so I can’t remain indifferent to the suffering and end of any person: because this life is all that any person has. Cheney has also no doubt benefitted from the fact that, when I read about the removal of his pulse, and the failing of his heart, it was around the same time as I encountered a piece on the last moments of the heart of Christina Green. And when I’m reminded of that little girl, I can’t feel animus towards anybody.

It appears that last July Cheney received a mechanical heart pump, which, judging from this piece, seemingly resides, at least in part, outside the body:

Mr. Cheney, as he did at several holiday receptions in Washington, chatted about his new pump. At one cocktail party, he even opened his coat jacket to show it off.

Mr. Cheney’s pump was placed near his heart. With most patients, a power line emerges about waist level and connects to a controller, a minicomputer that plugs into a pair of one-and-a-half-pound, 12-volt batteries. Patients wear a black mesh vest over their clothing that holds the controller and batteries.

More, from the same story:

Mr. Cheney’s heart will never beat at full strength again, doctors say. His new mechanical pump, a partial artificial heart known as a ventricular assist device, leaves patients without a pulse because it pushes blood continuously instead of mimicking the heart’s own beat. Most pulse-less patients feel nothing unusual, but the devices do pose significant risks of infection. They are implanted as a last resort either for permanent use or as a bridge to transplant until a donor heart can be found. Mr. Cheney, who has participated in some of the nation’s toughest decisions for decades, now faces a crucial one of his own: whether to seek a full heart transplant.

It is a decision he will most likely be forced to make within months. He is old enough that soon he will no longer qualify for a transplant, doctors say. And while it is possible for some patients with Mr. Cheney’s device to live for years, the long-term prospects remain unknown.

Cheney’s heart has never been strong. He suffered his first heart attack in 1978, at age 37. Six years later he had a second heart attack. A third came after four more years; he then underwent quadruple bypass surgery, at age 47. In late November of 2000, while waiting for the United States Supreme Court to complete its judicial coup, and thereby elevate Cheney and George II to the vice presidency and presidency, respectively, Cheney was hit with a fourth heart attack. A fifth struck in 2010. Along the way, he has undergone coronary artery stenting, urgent coronary balloon angioplasty, and the implantation of a cardioverter-defibrillator. He’s also had a pacemaker. He is today but 67 years old.

In the course of the normal American life, intimations of personal mortality begin to creep in somewhere around the 30s. But Cheney in his 30s was baldly confronted with the fact that he could die any minute. And he has lived with that ever since. We learned when he shot his friend in the face down in Texas just how daily dependent is Cheney on modern medical technology, as it was then revealed that a state-of-the-art, fully-stocked ambulance and crew trails him around everywhere he goes . . . just in case.

What I maybe understand least about Cheney, is how a man who has lived intimately with serious physical frailty and the immanence of his own death since the age of 37 could so coarsely and cavalierly visit suffering and death on others; this is, remember, the man who devised the “One Percent Doctrine,” in which, if it is determined that there may be even a 1% chance that, say, a person might visit grievous harm upon the United States, then that person may be subjected to, among other things, torture.

I suppose he Otherizes—those people are not him. But he’s wrong. They are.

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote a column for the San Francisco Examiner in which he explored a unique way in which a living human being could cease his or her pulse. He conducted his experiments at the Geneva Drive-In in South San Francisco, a place I used to frequent when my daughter was not yet old enough to attend walk-in theaters.

The story begins when, at the Geneva snack bar, Thompson encounters a machine that offers heart-rate readings for a quarter.

It had the look of state-of-the-art medical technology, a complex digital readout with ominous red numbers on a scale from 60 to 100. Anything under 60 was “athletic”; 60 to 70 was “well-conditioned”; 70 to 85 was “average”; and after that it got grim.

Between 85 and 100 was “below average,” and over 100 said, “inactive—consult your physician.”

I tested Maria first, and she came in at 91, which shocked even casual onlookers. She wept openly, attracting the focus of a large crew-cut uniformed cop who said his name was Ray and asked me for some “personal or professional ID.”

I grabbed a small blond girl and led her up to the machine. “I’m a doctor,” I told her. “I need your help on this experiment.”

She moved obediently into position and put her finger into the slot. The test pattern whirled and sputtered, then settled on 104. The child uttered a wavering cry and ran off before I could get her name.

I grabbed another one, a fat young lad name Joe, who turned out to be the son of Maggie, the night manager, who arrived just in time to keep Ray from calling in a SWAT team to have me locked up as a child molester.

Little Joe registered 126, a number so high that the machine offered no explanation for it. I gave him a quarter to go off and play the Donkey Kong machine on the other side of the aisle.

By that time I had loaded up on hot coffee and frozen my right index finger in a Styrofoam cup that Maggie had brought from the office.

I dropped my last quarter into the well-worn slot. The test pattern locked into a freeze pattern, unlike anything else we had seen to this point. The numbers rolled and skittered frenetically on the screen; people stood back and said nothing . . . and finally the test pattern settled on a number that nobody wanted to read.

It was double zero. I had no pulse. It was official—as final as some number carved in white granite on a tombstone on the outskirts of Buffalo.

Roughly 20 years later, in February of 2005, Thompson settled his pulse on double zero forever by putting a bullet through his brain. He was then 67, the same age as Cheney is today. Cheney was part of the reason that Thompson ended his life: the good doctor was convinced that in November of 2004 the American electorate would turn Bush/Cheney out of office in favor of his old running buddy, John Kerry, of whom he wrote: “of course I will vote for John Kerry. I have known him for thirty years as a good man with a brave heart.”

In his last published piece of consequence, Thompson told the readers of Rolling Stone:

Back in June, when John Kerry was beginning to feel like a winner, I had a quick little rendezvous with him on a rain-soaked runway in Aspen, Colorado, where he was scheduled to meet with a harem of wealthy campaign contributors. As we rode to the event, I told him that Bush’s vicious goons in the White House are perfectly capable of assassinating Nader and blaming it on him. His staff laughed, but the Secret Service men didn’t. Kerry quickly suggested that I might make a good running mate, and we reminisced about trying to end the Vietnam War in 1972.

That was the year I first met him, at a riot on that elegant little street in front of the White House. He was yelling into a bullhorn and I was trying to throw a dead, bleeding rat over a black-spike fence and onto the president’s lawn.

We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon—which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river.

That river is still running. All we have to do is get out and vote, while it’s still legal, and we will wash those crooked warmongers out of the White House.

Well . . . we voted, but there weren’t enough of us. And four more years of Bush/Cheney was one of the things that Thompson decided he just couldn’t live with. So he chose to stop living.

With all due respect to the doctor, suicide is something that I cannot countenance, not in a world where people like Christina Green are not permitted to age sufficiently to even sight the shoals of disillusion.

In January of this year, Christina Green was nine years old, and she was going to be a ballerina, and she was going to be the first female professional baseball player. And she was meanwhile interested in electoral politics; she was not disillusioned; she believed that great good could be accomplished there. And so her friend and neighbor Suzi Hileman drove Christina to a Tuscon Safeway supermarket, so she could meet her congressmember, Gabrielle Giffords. And there a scrambled man put a bullet through Giffords’ brain, and another bullet through Christina’s heart.

[Tony] Compagno was one of the first paramedics to reach the scene of the shooting rampage at a shopping center in Tucson last Saturday.

“The congresswoman, I could tell that she was still alive. People were giving a little girl CPR.”

The child receiving CPR was not responding, but Mr. Compagno was not about to write her off.

The first two patients were ready to go even before the helicopters landed: Nine-year-old Christina Green, who had been receiving CPR, and Ms. Giffords were loaded into ambulances.

The first to arrive [at the trauma center at the University of Arizona medical center] was Christina—still getting CPR, still not responding.

By normal standards, a gunshot victim who is unresponsive after 15 minutes of CPR has almost no hope of surviving and can be declared dead. Christina had already received 20 or 25 minutes, according to a report radioed in.

“This was a 9-year-old girl,” said Dr. Randall S. Friese, 46, a trauma surgeon. “Even though she had CPR beyond our guidelines, I decided to be aggressive.”

“You decide, and you do,” he said. “It’s a personal decision, and I decided to be aggressive, because she was 9.”

He tried a desperate last-ditch maneuver. Within about two minutes, he had cut open her chest, inserted a tube to fill her heart with blood and massaged the heart with his hand to try to start it beating again.

“I had her heart in my hand,” Dr. Friese said. “We filled it with blood. It still didn’t want to beat.”

He told the resident assisting him to fill Christina’s heart and try once more to make it start beating again.

[T]he resident tried, and failed. Christina was gone.

A priest had just performed last rites.

Dr. Friese does not remember seeing any of the patients come through the doors of the trauma center last Saturday—except for Christina.

Five days after the girl’s death, his secretary told him he was invited to Christina’s funeral. He did not ask from whom the invitation came. Was it from the family? Or did the nurses planning to share a bus to join the thousands of mourners seek him out? It did not matter. Without hesitating, he decided he would go.

There was no time for Dr. Friese to meet Mr. and Mrs. Green on Saturday. He was too busy attending to other patients, so it fell to a pediatric specialist to tell them the outcome. And he did not meet them Thursday either.

“I’m very glad that I didn’t meet her parents,” he said. “I think I would have had trouble. I would have had emotional . . . ”

His voice trailed off.

“I would have embarrassed myself,” he said. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I usually don’t get upset.”

He added, “I don’t know why, it’s just tough.”

When he showed up at the funeral in his blue scrubs and his white surgeon’s jacket, police officers helped him move through the overflow crowd waiting outside the church. He was ushered right in.

It was the first time he had ever attended a patient’s funeral.

Yesterday was opening day of the 2011 baseball season. Christina Green’s father, John, is a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’d hoped that someday he could scout his own daughter. For though Christina was a dancer, a ballerina, she was also a baseball player, and a good one.

She played in a baseball league with boys who were strong and fast, but she never once was fazed about being the only girl on the team. Nor did a hard-hit ball or a whizzing fastball intimidate her.

In one particular game, Christina was having a quality at-bat, seeing the ball well and fouling several balls off. After six or seven pitches, the pitcher accidentally let a fastball go that plunked her pretty good. After picking herself up and dusting herself off, Christina was given the choice to take first base or to finish her at-bat. With a slight grimace on her face, she replied, “I want to hit.” And hit she did. She drove a hard-hit ball on the next pitch.

Someday it will happen: a young woman will play in the Major Leagues. Christina intended to be that woman.

This spring the Dodgers played two benefit games to raise money for Christina’s family, and for the families of the other victims of the Tucson shootings.

Last November the Dodgers held a baseball-memorabilia auction to benefit PJ Carey, a Dodger scout, and his wife, both of whom had been stricken with cancer. John Green and his wife contributed items autographed by the likes of Matt Kemp and Fernando Valenzuela, Derek Jeter and Roy Halladay, which they accumulated and drove to the auction.

Christina Green came along too. She sat behind the display table, munching on cookies and smiling as she told a volunteer how special it was to skip school for a day.


3 Responses to “Two Hearts”

  1. 1 Elva April 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I felt the tears going down my face as I read this piece. I too have trouble with my heart. I was lucky that the fire dept is close
    by when I suffered a serious problem with my heart. Several days later I had a pacemaker put in. Now I have a new happiness in my life. I hope and pray I never have the problems that Chaney has had.

  2. 2 sally April 3, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Great writing — a powerful piece. It’s all about hearts and forgiveness. Christina leaving the planet also fractured my heart. Unlike you, however, I can find no forgiveness in my heart for Darth Cheney and his cohorts. I want to be kind to all in this world, but with Bush and Cheney, Inc., and their SHOCK AND AWE and BUNKER-BUSTERS carelessly killing so many in far away lands– leaving masses of broken hearts that will never mend– I cannot forgive that. And if you murdered those I loved, how long would it take for the rage in my heart to go away? I think a very, very long time —- Namaste — sally

    • 3 bluenred April 3, 2011 at 11:03 am

      You can not forgive him, and still not derive satisfaction from his being so sick. I don’t think it’s much fun, being Dick Cheney. I doubt it’s ever been.

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When I Worked

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