“If another doctor had come along with a better explanation, I would have happily seized it, “joked Henry Kissinger, after explaining why he had entered Massachusetts General Hospital for heart surgery. Bothered by shoulder pains, the former Secretary of State had learned he faced a life-threatening situation: All three main arteries supplying blood to his heart were at least partially blocked. On Feb. 10 the 58-year-old diplomat underwent a four-and-a-half-hour triple bypass operation during which doctors used 18 inches of vein taken from his right leg to detour around the clogged arteries. Displaying remarkable calm and good humor in the face of his ordeal (it proves “I do have a heart,” he quipped), Kissinger had spent the evening before surgery working with a TIME magazine editor on excerpts from the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval (Little, Brown, $24.95).
Three weeks after the operation—one of approximately 100,000 bypass procedures that will be performed in the U.S. this year—Kissinger flew to Palm Springs, Calif. with his wife, Nancy, 47, to continue his convalescence. There, in the home of his longtime friend MCA President Lew Wasserman, he met with PEOPLE’S Gail Jennes and recounted his potentially deadly affair of the heart. Three days later the Kissingers were suddenly summoned back to New York. Henry’s father, Louis, had died at age 95.
I had constant pain in my right shoulder and neck from two separate injuries for about a year and a half. At one point I went to a doctor about the shoulder and he wanted to operate, thinking it was an orthopedic problem. I was working on my book, so I didn’t want to face surgery. Then last fall an acute pain developed right next to it, down my shoulder blade and across my right collarbone. I made an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital. They found there was something amiss orthopedically but not enough to explain the severity of the pain. The doctor suggested I return for a stress test to see if the heart might be involved.
A week or two later there was a blizzard in New York. I had to abandon my car at the U.N. and walk about six blocks to my apartment. On the way, the pain became excruciating. Also, for the first time, I noticed a shortness of breath. I told this to Nancy. We were going to Acapulco, but she said she wouldn’t go unless I had another checkup. She called Dr. W. Gerald Austen, an old friend and one of this country’s noted heart specialists. He arranged for me to return to Mass General for two days.
They did two things, a bone scan to check the orthopedic part and a stress test to determine the condition of my heart. I passed the bone scan and flunked the stress test appallingly. I mean really dangerously. The test also involves injecting radioactive isotopes to show blood circulation in the heart muscle. Dr. Austen explained that I had a serious problem, but he could not tell without an angiogram whether it would respond to drugs or whether it would require an operation. He suspected it required a heart operation.
They took an angiogram the morning of Feb. 8 and found that one artery was 100 percent blocked. So I only had two functioning, and one was 60 percent blocked. They felt I’d better get an operation as quickly as possible.
My first reaction was incredulity. I’ve never been sick—except for flu or a cold—a day in my life. I’d never stayed in a hospital except for an appendix operation 30 years ago. Now I had an unbelievable schedule ahead of me, and I began bargaining with poor Austen to see whether he could operate next July 15. Then I remembered I had something on July 20. Well, maybe Aug. 1, I thought. Then I remembered I wanted to go to Africa in September. And to China in October. I was trying to treat surgery like an event that had to be put on my schedule. This was, of course, nuts, because the penalty of delay is a heart attack.
They acted wisely. The doctors didn’t argue with me until they had all the facts and the angiogram showed the blockages. Then they said there was no way I could last until July 15 without risking a major heart attack. They said that this operation doesn’t really change your life, but a major heart attack changes everything. There was no further controversy. I said: “Let’s do it as quickly as possible.”
I have no way of knowing what caused my heart problem. I’ve never smoked, I almost never drink. I always had the idea I had enormous endurance. When more work needed to be done, I just added three or four hours to the day or worked through the night. Four or five hours sleep was average. I certainly hadn’t been taking care of myself, and I certainly didn’t watch my food intake. I didn’t spend enough time on exercise. The best I ever managed was an occasional swim or walk. I suppose all these factors contributed, but I don’t know.
The night before surgery I was working on some 15,000 words of copy for TIME while the nurses were prepping me, shaving my chest and putting this yellowish antiseptic solution on my body. One of my two surgeons, Dr. Mortimer J. Buckley, came in, and I said, “I’d like to talk to you, but I’ve got to get this material to TIME tonight.” I was antagonizing the guy who had my life in his hands! Still, I talked to the TIME editor for an hour and a half. What else could I do? The alternative was to lie around contemplating the operation.
All the doctors said that I was going to have a hellish two days after the surgery, but that I’d never remember a minute afterward. It’s true I had a bad two days, but I remember it all. You come out of that operation with some 12 lines and drainage tubes connecting you to such things as the IVs, the electrocardiographic and blood pressure monitors. Because of the respirator, you have a gag down your throat and cannot make a sound. That’s not pleasant. As soon as I came out of the anesthesia, I began writing notes to Nancy and the doctors asking when the gag would be removed and urging Nancy to go to the hotel for some sleep.
It was a new experience for me to be absolutely dependent on people. I couldn’t even turn over without nurses helping me because the pain would have been too great. I had to be turned regularly, and my vital signs had to be taken every half hour. So I would just doze off, and then somebody would wake me up, give me a pill or take my pulse. All I wanted was to be left alone. They asked Nancy what music I hated most. She said rock ‘n’ roll, so they put on some rock ‘n’ roll music just to get the juices flowing again. Then they put a movie on television. I was still so doped I couldn’t fully understand it. But they kept me alert through that first night.
One of the least pleasant aspects of recuperating is that they make you cough after they’ve broken your breastbone in order to get at your heart. They make you cough seven or eight times a day to prevent pneumonia. One person wrote me that you think the terrible time is when you cough; in fact, it’s that first sneeze. My first sneeze was no joke, but luckily it came three weeks after surgery.
I owe a lot to Nancy for getting me through the first few days of my recovery. She stayed with me the whole time, when things were the most painful. I don’t really know why I’ve healed so well. I credit some outstanding doctors, a basically strong constitution and my refusal to be an invalid. I had calls from Secretary of State Haig and from four American Presidents—Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Carter. Considering what I said about Carter in the last elections, his was an act of great human generosity! Three days after the operation I was having visitors and trying to stay as close to my normal concerns as I could. In the intensive care unit I threw them for a loop by saying I wanted to read. They hadn’t had anybody do that. And I did read a little bit, mostly magazines.
I didn’t begin to work until I left the cardiac care section eight days after surgery. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I was working maybe an hour a day then, not eight hours a day—although I will be in another couple of weeks. Eight hours is about two-thirds of what I usually do. I have tried to treat the illness like a nuisance to be gotten rid of. With my new schedule of walking and physiotherapy, the sort of work that I usually could knock off in one afternoon now takes me a day or more. I’ll have to take a nap every afternoon for a few weeks. I started out walking about 20 minutes, and now I’m up to 40 minutes twice a day.
I weighed more than 200 pounds at the time of the operation but have lost 19 since then and have another 15 to go. All the things I like are bad for me. I like sausage. I like whipped cream. I like lots of eggs. Lately I have been eating a lot of salads—not my favorite—and chicken. Still, I can’t do better than lose three or four pounds a week. But I have to keep it off. I don’t want to go through this again.
I would think by the middle of April I will be close to a normal work schedule. I am not yet writing the next volume of memoirs—on the Ford years—but I am reading the research material.
There is no question that when you learn that you have physical limits, that is something important in your life to think about. But although surgery was a painful experience, there is not going to be a traumatic change in my life. I return to Mass General on April 16 for a postoperative checkup. The day before, I am going to take all the doctors on my case and their wives, 17 people, to dinner at Locke-Ober—and I will break their hearts by breaking my training in the most egregious fashion.