A Heart Attack Prompts a Veteran Broadcaster to Clean Up His Off-the-Air Act

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a candidate for heart trouble, Larry King was a front-runner. His father had died from a coronary at age 44, and King himself, by 53, was a three-pack-a-day smoker whose work schedule included five hours of live daily broadcasts over the Cable News Network and Mutual Radio, a weekly column in USA Today and a breakneck schedule of personal appearances. Last Feb. 24 the work stopped when King was rushed from his Arlington, Va. condominium to the George Washington University Medical Center. There, while suffering a heart attack, he was given an experimental drug known as t-PA (tissue plasminogen activator) that he now credits with limiting the severity of his coronary and speeding his recovery. King spent eight days in the hospital and another 19 convalescing before returning to work and an on-the-radio welcome from actress-companion Angie Dickinson. Shortly after his return, King spoke to Washington reporter Jane Sims Podesta about his brush with mortality.

For the last seven years I've had angina and taken nitroglycerin. For two or three months I had noticed a shortness of breath. I'd get a pain in my shoulder if I'd run through the airport, sometimes just by walking briskly and carrying something. I was a heavy smoker so I knew I was in trouble, but I didn't go to see the doctor or anything because the pain always went away.

What was surprising was I got off the air at 3 a.m. and while sitting in the car I got this same pain and the shortness of breath that I normally would get running through an airport. This time I got it just sitting in the car, and that felt very strange. So I came home, took the nitroglycerin, which I normally took for chest pain, and it went away. I slept for two hours and got up at 5:30 a.m., and my shoulder was hurting again.

At about 9:30 a.m., I finally called my TV producer, Tammy Haddad, and she drove right over and took me to the GWU emergency room. They took me right in, put a little oxygen thing in my nose and immediately started an EKG.

By then I was again having no pain, and the EKG showed normal. The cardiologist, Dr. Warren Levy, said, "We're going to keep you here on the hunch that the pain's going to come back." Within two minutes it did, and now it was severe. They do the EKG, and I see them go out and look at the printout against the light. All Dr. Levy said to me was, "Mr. King, you're having a heart attack."

I don't remember panic. I just remember the pain was getting so bad that I said, "Am I going to live?" I'll tell you, pain supersedes all things. I didn't know how much more I could take. He said, "Your chances are excellent for a couple of reasons. One, you're having a heart attack right this minute. It has just started. And you're also fortunate in that this hospital has a new drug called t-PA."

All I kept saying was, "Take away the pain; the pain is terrible." It was constant, like a toothache in my shoulder, and it went down the arm. Finally they gave me intravenous nitroglycerin and the t-PA all at the same time. They dissolved the clot, and the pain went away; it was gone in half an hour.

They took me into the emergency room and hooked me up with all these things...blood thinners, oxygen, the intravenous feeding. Then they took me up to the cardiac care unit. A cardiologist came in and said I'd been given t-PA and he considered it an extraordinary drug, maybe the best he'd ever seen in the history of cardiology. It actually stops the clot and reduces the damage to the muscle. "What we're going to do tomorrow," he said, "is take an angiogram, look around with a catheter and dye and see if we can do ballooning on you."

The angiogram takes an hour, and then it takes another two hours to do the ballooning, or coronary angioplasty. You gotta lie flat, you gotta cough sometimes, you gotta turn a little. It's very long and boring. First they give a painkiller. They take a needle, go right into your artery. Once it's in, you don't feel anything. You watch on the screen and see this snakelike wire. They put a dye into the catheter and actually videotape your system. You could get a VCR of it, I guess. Doctors love to tape.

Inside the catheter they insert a deflated balloon, inflate it, turn it around and then take it out. It feels like absolutely nothing. In my case it reduced an 85 percent blockage to a 20 percent blockage. So in a sense, I guess I came out of this with an artery that's 10 or 15 years younger than it was. But a damaged muscle. The t-PA reduced the damage because it stopped the clotting. If there hadn't been t-PA, the odds wouldn't have been so good for me.

I told the doctor to give this to me in layman's terms. He said, "Your body is an eight-cylinder car. You have six full operating cylinders and two damaged cylinders. So your car can still run, and run well, but you can't treat the other cylinders improperly." What do you do about it? You understand that you have heart disease. You severely reduce the consumption of cholesterol. You stop smoking.

Angie used to flip over smoking. She had a relationship with David Janssen, who smoked four packs a day and died of a heart attack. She would get at me. Like out at dinner I had to blow the smoke the other way. Clorets before kissing. Driving out of Los Angeles one night I lit up a cigarette, and she rolled down the window, stuck her head out and started coughing. I got two drags on the cigarette, and that was it.

I never did a radio show without smoking, and I've been in radio 30 years this coming May. I have had no problem at all stopping. I don't miss them. Don't reach for them. I have no desire for them. I'm too scared to smoke. By now, just talking, I would have had four or five cigarettes. That's a big change. There are other changes. I was never anyone who needed people around before. Now I've started thinking it's nice to have someone around. I've found that sleeping with a woman is not only a nice feeling, but there is also some comfort in knowing that someone is there.

You get frightened after a heart attack. You become supersensitive to pain. A few weeks ago I went to a hockey game. I came back, sat down in the kitchen, and I get a pain in my left arm. It was like I'd written 300 letters. It wouldn't go away for 20 minutes. I went downstairs, got in the car and drove right over to the emergency room. The cardiologist came downstairs and did the EKG on me. I'm sitting there sweating, nervous, wondering what the EKG would show. The cardiologist comes back and says, "You have a perfect EKG. It's not your heart. It's probably a muscle spasm, or you turned the wrong way, maybe you got a chill. Perfectly normal, Mr. King. You might be back a time or two again."

There's also a post-heart-attack depression. A fear of going to sleep because you think you're not going to ever wake up, or you'll wake up in severe pain. So you start doing dumb things. Like I always know where my car keys are. I never thought about my keys before, but now I've got to have them next to me so I can get out of here fast. And I sleep with the light on. I can have sex, but the first time is a little frightening. I'm okay now.

One night while I was in the hospital Martin Sheen came to see me. Martin Sheen had a heart attack while making Apocalypse Now, a much more severe heart attack than I had, and he was given last rites. It was bad. He was on a helicopter going from this remote location to Manila, and this monk put a piece of crystal in his hand and folded his hand over it. All the monk said was, "You will live." You will live, that's it. He carried this crystal with him for 10 years. He gave that crystal to me in the hospital; he put it in my hand and said, "Here, you keep it. Maybe you'll pass it on." Everywhere I go I carry it. I keep it in the nightstand at night. I hold it sometimes. I held it in the hospital that day I felt the pain in my arm.

My doctors said if every American stopped smoking and reduced cholesterol, the damage of heart disease would be cut drastically. I can live the rest of my life without cigarettes. I take as little cholesterol as possible. I walk every day, and I've started an exercise class for postcardiac patients.

I have heart disease, and I'll have it the rest of my life. Nothing, nothing in the world can ever change that. But like the other day I was in a traffic jam, and I hit the steering wheel with my fist. Then I stopped myself and said, "Hey, what could happen if I stay here an hour? So what? I'm alive."

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