BY: DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK – It comes as no surprise that the legendarily competitive Barbara Walters was able to land former President Bill Clinton, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Regis Philbin for her ABC News special this week.
The selling point was what tied all the celebrities — Walters included — together: their open heart surgeries.
As she recovered from her own surgery to repair a faulty heart valve last May, Walters realized that the prevalence of heart disease and the fear many people have of a heart operation made for a good story. “A Matter of Life and Death” airs at 10 p.m. EST on Friday.
Walters knew she needed the celebrity infusion.
“I didn’t want people to feel that this was going to be an hour lecture,” she said. “To have these very famous, and in some cases very funny, people, meant that they would watch.”
Each guest agreed to talk about his experience. Clinton, the former Big Mac president, revealed that he’s now practically a vegan. The usually private Letterman talks candidly about depression and how he sometimes bursts into tears of joy that he’s doing well, given his medical history and the knowledge that his father died of a heart attack at age 57. Letterman is 63.
Williams shows off his scar and so does Walters — discreetly, of course.
Clinton and Walters shared a secret and a surgeon. Dr. Craig R. Smith of New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia performed a quadruple bypass on Clinton in September 2004 and replaced Walters’ heart valve. (Disclosure: Smith performed a heart bypass on this reporter in 2008.)
When Walters, 81, first learned she might need surgery, she said Clinton was the only person with whom she discussed it, when they ran into each other at a holiday party in 2009. She didn’t even tell her daughter until shortly before disclosing it on “The View” in May.
“I had no one to kind of hold my hand and I don’t know why I didn’t tell anyone (else),” she said. “Maybe it was a feeling that it was a shameful thing to have to do or that maybe they’ll treat me differently.”
She had no symptoms after finding out about the valve problem following a routine checkup in the fall of 2009. She worried that surgery would be terribly painful, although it wasn’t. She hoped she could wait it out a couple of years so a less invasive way of correcting the issue could be discovered.
It took on greater urgency last spring after Walters felt some shortness of breath while climbing stairs. Still, she tried to put it off. She was busy. She asked her doctor: What’s the risk of putting it off for a while?
“A slight risk of dropping dead,” he replied.
“I said, `I’ll go in next week,’” she recalled.
A private person in a public job, Walters lets viewers in on what she went through. She shows a picture of herself in a hospital bed, plainly giddy from drugs. She details the methodical recovery, gaining strength every day. She reads from a diary her daughter had written about the surgery and its aftermath.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t more scared, but I wasn’t,” she said. “And there were aspects of it that I enjoyed.”
They included eating hot dogs and baloney sandwiches, as doctors encouraged her to gain weight she lost in the hospital. Walters was also touched by the people who reached out to her. Tom Cruise called three times.
When she thinks about how the experience changed her, she noted that she’s staying away from the “shoulds”: events she thought she had to attend; work she thought she had to do.
“I don’t do that anymore,” she said. “I don’t go to cocktail parties. I try, when I look at my calendar, to make sure that every day is pleasant, that I look forward to it. I did stories sometimes that I wasn’t interested in because I should, so I’d appear on the air. I don’t do that now.”
The ABC special is more than celebrity tales. She talks to doctors, including her own, about prevention and the warning signs of heart trouble. Walters particularly wanted women to take notice, because many worry more about cancer than heart disease. Women need to understand that their symptoms of heart disease are often quite different from men, she said.
In a sobering conversation, she spoke to Luke Russert, son of the late NBC newsman Tim Russert, who died of a heart attack even as he was taking medication and trying to stay on top of potential heart disease.
She asked Clinton about pictures taken of him at his daughter Chelsea’s wedding last summer, and how some people believed he looked gaunt and may be sick.
No, Clinton said, he had been trying to lose weight and was sticking to a diet heavy on fruits, grains and vegetables. He has another incentive now to keep healthy.
“That’s my next goal,” he told her. “I want to hang around here to have grandchildren.”
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