How Clinton Recovered From Surgery

Oct. 28, 2004 — -- When former President Bill Clinton underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation last month, he says he had some "profound and lasting" visions.

One of those he remembers best "clearly connoted death and images that clearly connoted life," he said.

"I saw like dark masks crushing, like death masks being crushed, in series, and then I'd see these great circles of light and then like Hillary's picture or Chelsea's face would appear on the light, and then they'd fly off into the dark," he told Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer.

It was the first sit-down interview the former president has given in the seven weeks since his Sept. 6 surgery.

Clinton's wife said she was touched when she learned of what her husband saw while on the operating table.

"He said, 'I saw you and Chelsea and saw the darkness, then I'd see you and Chelsea and I saw the light,'" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton , D-N.Y., told Sawyer. "It meant so much to me."

Tension and Relief

Sen. Clinton said the night before her husband's surgery was also emotional. But the former president seemed to take it in stride, she said.

"Bill wanted to play games, call friends, talk to [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry," she said. Joined by their daughter Chelsea, they played Scrabble and Boggle.

"Chelsea and I would go off and hug each other," Hillary Clinton said. "It was a little surreal."

The tension of the night before surgery was only matched by the relief afterward.

"Bill looked so peaceful when he came out of surgery, not a line in his face, in the deepest sleep I'd known for 33 years," his wife said.

But when he came out of the anesthetic, the former president was in high spirits -- and back to old form.

"I don't remember all this -- but they say I was quite funny," he told Sawyer. "I was giddy, happy … I was waving at everybody, calling them by name in the operating room. Lord knows what I did and how embarrassing it is."

Reflecting on that memory, he considers that he may have been hiding his feelings about the operation. "I must have been concerned about it because I was apparently quite happy when I woke up," he said.

Tough Love

When the former president returned to his home in the New York City suburb of Chappaqua, he had a surprise waiting for him.

His wife had changed their telephone number to keep him from getting back to his old habits of working too hard too soon. "She was so afraid that I would just be living on the phone," the former president said with a laugh.

"I know my husband, and he has so many friends," Hillary Clinton said. She said she only told him she made the change after he complained that no one was calling him.

They rerouted their phone to the former president's business address. "It was interesting," he said. "We got 100,000 e-mails, 10,000 letters, and hundreds and hundreds of phone calls."

Lifestyle Changes

Sawyer asked the former president about the lifestyle changes that have come with his discovery of heart disease. The man who once had a reputation for frequenting fast-food chains now says he doesn't miss Big Macs.

He said he works late and used to enjoy a lot of hamburgers at 11 p.m. at a French restaurant near his home. But now, he says, "I just eat salmon or tuna or something. I just eat something else. I don't think about it much.

"You don't have to live like a monk," he said. "I mean, once in a while, or every couple of months you can fall off the wagon, I guess."

He laughed and added, "Although I haven't yet. I don't want to take any chances."

Clinton says he is starting to lift weights again and that his cholesterol is, if anything, too low. He also looks noticeably thinner.

As he recovers from his surgery, Clinton said, "I'll never get tired of living. But I think it's a great waste of time to sit around in morbid fear of a fate that we all have to share."

He added, "I think the most important thing is to keep your head in the game and to think about what you're doing at the moment."