A Barbara Walters Special, 'A Matter of Life and Death'

Barbara Walters and celebrities share their journeys through open-heart surgery.

ByABC News
February 1, 2011, 8:36 AM

Feb. 2, 2011 — -- Six months ago, I stood at the crossroad of Life and Death, my doctors telling me that I could suddenly die from a heart attack if I didn't have open-heart surgery. I'm not alone. In the past few years, other well-known Americans have undergone this dramatic operation to save their lives.

"I realized there was really no alternative, if I wanted to live, I had to do this."
-- President Bill Clinton

"I would find myself busting into tears and sobbing uncontrollably."
-- David Letterman

"... stop the heart, work on it, restart it ... good luck."
-- Robin Williams

"They're going to put him on a gurney, roll him into the OR room and bust him open like a lobster."
-- Regis Philbin

"It was hell."
-- Charlie Rose

Each day, our hearts beat 100,000 times, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood, filled with oxygen, through our bodies. In an average lifetime, this amazing muscle will beat more than 2.5 billion times.

But many of us are ticking time bombs and we don't even know it. Heart disease is America's No. 1 killer.

Half of us will die from it. And it doesn't discriminate. Every year the hearts of more than 500,000 women stop beating, twice as many deaths as all cancers combined.

Most of us believe that heart disease is a disease of men, when, in fact, it kills more women. But as you'll discover, women do not have the same symptoms as men, and our report describes the difference.

But here's the good news: 80 percent of heart disease is preventable. Every day in operating rooms across the country, doctors miraculously bring dying hearts back to life using surgical procedures that were once unthinkable.

And even with a half a million of us annually having our chests cracked open, our hearts literally stopped and then repaired, open-heart surgery remains shrouded in fear and mystery.

Which is why I want to take you on a journey, my own … and share with you how being wheeled into operating room No. 22 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in May to replace my faulty heart valve saved my life.

You're also going to hear for the first time the personal and emotional stories of President Bill Clinton, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Regis Philbin and Charlie Rose -- all of whom had open-heart surgery.

One day -- because statistics don't lie -- some of you may find yourselves on an operating table, too. Pretty scary. But it doesn't have to be.

Together, we are going to open up our hearts to you and tell you what each of us women, as well as men, needs to know to save ourselves and our loved ones. It's no big deal … just a matter of LIFE AND DEATH.