News of Burt Reynolds' recent quintuple bypass surgery reminded me of when my Dad had the same operation back in 1997 at the ripe old age of 73. His age plus the dangers of anesthesia plus such a blocked-up ticker prompted the cardiologist to prepare us for the worst, but thanks to a combination of modern medicine and Dad's upbeat attitude when it comes to hospital stays (it's better than a hotel because pretty young girls give him sponge baths!) he's still going strong 13 years later. Here are a few other famous folks who owe their lives to just-in-time heart surgery.
1. David Letterman
The then-52-year-old Late Show host had a history of high cholesterol, and his father had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 57, so he knew deep down that he was at risk for heart disease. In early 2000, Dave's doctor saw something iffy during his stress test and scheduled Letterman for an angiogram. During the January 14, 2000, broadcast Dave's fear was palpable as he discussed the procedure with guest Regis Philbin (who'd undergone an angioplasty a few years back). Not only did he dread the procedure "“ which involved inserting a needle into the groin "very close to your deal" to inject dye "“ but he (like most folks) didn't like the idea of his rib cage being cracked open if the angio results were bad news. David viewed the films at 8:00AM with his cardiologist, saw the severe blockage in his left main artery, and phoned his executive producer at 8:30 to let him know that he wouldn't be reporting for work that day; he was undergoing quintuple bypass surgery. Five weeks later Dave was back on the job with his rib cage wired shut and veins from his legs grafted into his coronary arteries.
2. James Garner
Oh dear, talk about your bad timing"¦shortly after Rockford Files star James Garner was tapped to be a spokesperson for the beef industry, he was rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital for emergency quintuple bypass surgery.
Garner survived, but the Beef Council was forced to rethink its advertising strategy since the actor's heart blockage only reinforced the "red meat equals cholesterol" climate of the late 1980s. Garner's eschewing of vegetables in the spot just provided more fodder for late-night TV monologues.
3. Bill Clinton
While he was president, Bill Clinton squeezed in a daily jog whenever his schedule allowed. However, he earned a lot of snarky press (and a Saturday Night Live skit) when alert paparazzi shot pictures of him jogging into a McDonald's. The truth was out "“ the Commander-in-Chief had a weakness for Big Macs. Growing up as a good ol' Southern boy, it's safe to bet that he also gorged on less-than-healthy (but nevertheless delicious) meals of fried catfish, chicken-fried steak, fried okra, and greens cooked with bacon fat as a youth. In 2004 the former president could no longer ignore the chest pains and shortness of breath he'd been experiencing after a minimal amount of exertion. Medical tests revealed severe blockage in four of his coronary arteries, and bypass surgery was performed. All was well until February 2010, when Clinton experienced serious chest pain and ultimately received two stents to open up arteries that had become 90% blocked. Many pundits immediately accused Clinton of falling off the heart-smart menu wagon, but experts have since pointed out that genetics play almost as large a role in heart disease as diet. Some folks are just predisposed to plaque-filled arteries.
4. Rue McClanahan
One of the two surviving Golden Girls went in for a routine physical in November 2009. An irregular EKG led to further tests, which led to the operating room for emergency bypass surgery. The 75-year-old actress had been scheduled to be the guest of honor at "Golden: A Gala Tribute to Rue McClanahan" at San Francisco's Castro Theatre just one week after her unexpected surgery and was forced to beg off, stating: "My darlings, I'm just devastated that I'm going to have to miss my own tribute. Unfortunately, my doctor has laid down the law and I'm currently having some maintenance on the old ticker." All looked well for Rue until January 2010, when McClanahan suffered what her reps described as a "minor" stroke (a not all that uncommon occurrence for older folks after undergoing major surgery).
Maybe it's not exactly foreshadowing, but you can watch a clip of Rue as Blanche Devereaux after having a pacemaker implanted.
5. Regis Philbin
Remember what I said earlier about cholesterol and genetics? TV host Regis Philbin underwent his first angioplasty back in 1993 to clear out some clogged heart arteries. The experience, he said at the time, scared him and he began an exercise regime and paid close attention to his diet. Nevertheless in 2000 he had a second angioplasty, and in 2007 he started experiencing those same ol' symptoms "“ chest pains and shortness of breath. He told his Live with Regis and Kelly audience: "Darn it, I don't want to do it. Nobody wants to do it, I guess. But they tell me. And I had a second opinion, I did all those things [tests for heart disease], and so they're [the doctors] all in agreement that it should be the bypass." Surgeons unclogged three of Philbin's arterial arteries and he was back on the job five weeks later.