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

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

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.

Brotherhood of the Cracked Chest Club

Williams calls them the "Brotherhood of the Cracked Chest Club." In a span of 10 years, some of the biggest names in entertainment and news -- Letterman, Philbin, Williams and Rose -- each had dramatic open-heart surgery, their stories playing out in headlines and on each other's shows.

After my surgery, Letterman even appeared on "The View," which I guess makes me a sister among brothers. An extremely private man, Letterman rarely gives interviews. But when it comes to his operation,he didn't hesitate to open up his heart.

"Take advantage of the technology and the care that's available," he says. "There's no reason why a man or woman in this day and age should unexpectedly drop dead of a heart attack."

These are intimate portraits of the most public figures, infused with tears and laughter. When I jokingly asked Williams if he "moo-ed" now that he had a cow-valve replacement, the comic genius shot back, "No, but I give a great quart of cream."

Our report will also take you on an unprecedented behind-the-scenes journey of my own battle from the discovery of a faulty heart valve to the operating table and recovery. Normally, I don't discuss my private life but I want people to know, particularly women, how serious heart disease is and what remarkable medical treatment is available.

The most famous open-heart surgery of our time unquestionably belongs to former President Clinton. In 1955, Dwight Eisenhower became the first sitting president to suffer a heart attack.

At the time, his illness stunned the nation. Eisenhower survived but four additional heart attacks ultimately killed him.

A similar fate awaited Clinton in August 2004 when, after experiencing chest pain, severe tightness, shortness of breath and fatigue, he learned that he needed immediate quadruple-bypass surgery. "I was heavily blocked. I had 90 percent blockage," the president told me.

It wasn't until the 1960s with landmark advances such as valve replacement and the heart-lung machine that survival rates dramatically increased, as I learned talking to Dr. Kathy Magliato, one of the few female heart surgeons in the world and author of "Heart Matters."

"It took a long time for us to develop open-heart surgery because, for the longest time, people thought that if we opened the chest and operated on their heart, that somehow their soul would not remain intact," she says. "And, so, we simply would take patients who had chest pain, bring them into the hospital, put them on bed rest and if they survived, they survived."

All of us in the "Cracked Chest Club" are lucky. Having your chest cracked open sounds scary … but it doesn't have to be, especially when you get a second chance at life.


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