King of Hearts
Posted On Feb 05, 2014
Heart disease is a formidable foe, but Larry King’s cardiac foundation stands ready.
By: Ruchel Louis Coetzee
Photography By: Fadil Berisha
“Welcome to larry king live! our guests tonight…” the show was well on its way when the questions began popping up. But its host, Larry King, wasn’t the one asking them. “Are you all right?” one guest asked him. “You look a little ashen,” another noted. Yet King pushed on. After all, he was king of this hill and used to interviewing illustrious, often controversial figures for one hour each night on CNN. When that show would end, he would hop over to Mutual Broadcasting System to pick up the national beat from midnight until 4am. It was 1987 and the legendary television and radio host was living it up in the fast lane. “I was 53, single, and smoking three packs a day,” says King. “You know the warnings they put on packs that say, ‘Cause lung disease’? I would look for the packs that would say, ‘May interfere with pregnancy.’ I would shut off the television if there was a commercial warning about the dangers of smoking, because I always thought nothing would ever happen to me.” But happen it did. Just before King signed off his show on that fateful evening, he felt a slight pain. Later, he drove to the hospital. His guests, it turned out, had every right to be concerned: King had been having a heart attack. That close encounter with death led to a quadruple bypass surgery and the demise of cigarettes in King’s life, not to mention a surprise wake-up call.
Across the United States, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women. Approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease every year—that’s one in every four deaths, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. What makes this all the more troubling is that a significant portion of these individuals are uninsured. It’s a dark reality that King considered soon after his own surgery. “I remember it was about a week or two after the surgery and I was sitting around with some friends,” recalls King. “They asked me how much it cost, and I had no idea because the insurance paid the whole thing. I got to thinking of all the people who did not have coverage and what it meant if they could not get the surgery. I believe that health is a right, like speech. You have a right to health. So we started the very next year to try and help those people.”
Following his heart attack, King created the Larry King Cardiac Foundation (LKCF), which included doctors and other professionals on its board. After they hosted a successful event in Baltimore, momentum built until they were putting on two events annually. “We had major stars appear and raised a lot of money, and many people were helped over the years,” says King. “My wife, Shawn, is now chair of the board.”
Indeed, his wife, Shawn, is the other half of this caring couple and a driving force within LKCF. According to her, the foundation is always broadening its reach. “We’re not only helping those who fall through the cracks without health insurance, but we’re going to be focusing on prevention and education,” says Shawn. “We want to amplify the impact of community activists who are helping people every day to focus on heart health—so fewer of us have to have cardiac procedures.” King insists that there’s nothing more important than giving back, as far as he is concerned. “I have always felt that way,” he says. “If you have good things in life—a nice house and some sort of success—then you owe it back.”
When it comes to reviewing the pleas from people in need, the LKCF has a process in place to determine how it can most effectively allocate help. “We look at need,” Larry says. “The goal is to save hearts, every day.” From babies to grown adults, the LKCF has facilitated heart procedures across generations. Baby Matthew, for one, was born with a hole in his heart. When his family, from Gaithersburg, Maryland, learned that their insurance would not cover the cost of treating Matthew’s medical condition, they appealed to the foundation for help. In the end, Matthew’s surgery was covered, which meant that he could go on to celebrate his first birthday. There have been many other success stories: A handyman in Washington; a self-employed flooring installer in Louisiana; a three-year-old girl from Uganda. Each of these people has had their heart touched by the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, and appeared at the organization’s galas to share their hopes, success stories, and abundant gratitude. “If you attend our galas, you meet patients we have helped,” says Larry. “In 26 years, only one patient has passed away.”
While many consider Larry to be the face of LKCF, he and Shawn are quick to point out the misconception that heart disease predominantly afflicts men. “If I tell a person someone’s had a heart attack, they expect it to be a man; it is built in,” says Larry. “But that’s slowly changing through education. Barbra Streisand has been a very vocal advocate in this field.” He’s referring to the singer’s significant efforts to raise awareness of heart disease in women through her own foundation in conjunction with Cedars=Sinai Women’s Heart Center. According to the CDC, approximately the same number of women as men die each year of heart disease in the US. Despite growing awareness of this fact, only about half—54 percent—of women recognize that heart disease is their number-one killer. “The statistics about women and heart disease are astonishing,” says Shawn. “There are five times more women with heart disease than with breast cancer. I think that with a woman, the thought of losing a breast or breasts is more frightening than having a heart condition.”
Sometimes in the doctor’s office, women with heart-related issues end up getting misdiagnosed. “When a woman goes to a doctor with pain, the doctor is more likely to say that it’s indigestion,” says Larry, who notes this observation is shared by medical professionals in the field. “With a man, the doctor is more likely to check the heart first.” Some doctors also fixate on how a woman might be feeling emotionally—which also ends up with an incorrect diagnosis. “They will misdiagnose—it’s very real,” says Shawn. “Studies show that some physicians will say, ‘Oh, she’s being hysterical, she’s being emotional, or she’s over exaggerating.’ It’s been documented time and time again. Not all doctors are that way, but there are many circumstances in which caregivers just don’t attend to a woman’s pain as much as a man’s pain.”
Shawn knew little about cardiac disease before she met Larry. None of her family had focused on the issue, as they all had healthy hearts. But half of all Americans have one of three risk factors that contribute to heart disease, including high levels of blood pressure, bad cholesterol, or a history with smoking. After becoming involved in the foundation, Shawn knew that prevention had to be a key focus. One area includes promoting awareness about exercise and healthy diets. “Another element is learning how to control your emotions, keeping your stress levels down, and learning how to deal with life in general,” she says. Her desire is for people to concentrate on taking care of themselves now.
One of the best heart health tips Shawn ever received came from her older brother, Paul. “It was about forgiveness and about holding grudges,” she recalls. “If you hold onto a grudge, or remain angry at someone, it is like drinking poison and waiting to die. I’m sure others have said that, but when I heard it from my brother it hit me so hard that I realized that we really have to let go of things that bother us.” While Larry says he never holds a grudge, he admits that other things can pile up in his life. For him, stress can quickly accumulate depending on how he chooses to react to others. “I can’t put up with people being late, and that’s probably because I’m in broadcasting,” he says, laughing. “Time is all about synchronizing to me, so I stress when people are late. I stress over time, traffic jams, things I can’t control—like airline delays. I’ve been told about Zen, and I’ve been told about deep breathing and all that, but I still drive people nuts.”
Some doctors suggest that the most important number to remember— besides your partner’s birthday, of course—is the ideal blood pressure number for a healthy heart, which many experts cite to be 115 over 75. It’s particularly important that you’re able to test your blood pressure at regular intervals, especially during heavy workout sessions. Taking nutritional supplements is also an important tool when it comes to battling heart disease, in Larry’s opinion. “Ever since I had the heart dysplasia, I go for my regular check-ups,” Larry says. “I don’t take a lot of prescription medicine, but I work to keep my cholesterol all the way down and I believe in supplements.”
With his healthy diet and regular exercise regimen, as well as a loving wife and sons who tango with him through life, Larry doesn’t seem to take pause. But he still holds some concerns. “My only fear now is memory loss,” he says. “I panic when I forget something.” That said, Larry is quick to recall the defining moments of an illustrious career that helped him grow his foundation’s recognition. From Frank Sinatra to Nelson Mandela, Larry has interviewed the who’s who of the modern world. The one person who remains unforgettable? Marlon Brando. “The agent called me to say Brando agreed to do the interview,” recalls Larry, who was living at the Wilshire Hotel at the time. “The agent phones and says, ‘He’s going to call.’ That Friday my phone rang and this voice said, ‘Larry, it’s Marlon.’ I said, ‘Marlon, who?’ I knew a Marlin Fitzwater, who was Press Secretary to the president at the time.”
But the voice on the other line belonged to Brando, and he asked Larry to meet him for lunch. Brando, much to Larry’s disbelief, pulled up in his own car. “We drove around the streets singing songs before pulling up to his house to do the interview,” says Larry, noting that Brando could not have been any nicer. (The actor even applied his own make-up and served lunch to the whole crew.) Larry took away one eye-opening lesson from this fateful visit with Brando “I learned that acting was not his passion,” Larry says. “There was nothing in his house that said he was an actor. No Academy Award. There were books on architecture, but nothing that would say he’s an actor. At the end of the interview he kissed me on the lips. I always kid and say, ‘I’ve never been kissed on the lips by a man in my life, and I can’t stop thinking about him.’”
When asked where he would like to see LKCF in ten years, Larry simply replies that he would like to be alive in ten years—and indeed continue to watch the foundation flourish across the globe. All jokes aside, LKCF has made significant strides since its inception, and is on a trajectory to help many more individuals in the years ahead. In a major new initiative, the foundation is leveraging the Kings’ powerful media platform to provide more support to the many smaller, grassroots organizations working on prevention. In a recent blog, Larry pledged to shine a light on the grassroots stars of heart health—making them as famous as some of the celebrities and influencers he’s interviewed over the years.
It helps, of course, to have Larry’s inarguable celebrity status on the foundation’s side—whether that means leveraging the microphone and camera to promote heart-health heroes or helping children in the US and around the world. King recalls one particular story of a little boy from Afghanistan. “He needed surgery that they couldn’t do in Afghanistan,” remembers Larry. “The Pentagon flew him in on a military plane. They got him into George Washington University hospital, which is one of our partners. The doctors did it gratis, and we helped with various things. Then I went to the hospital and met the boy and his father. They couldn’t speak English, but ‘thank you’ is universal, and when I saw that little boy’s face I knew I did the right thing.”
Larry reguarly speaks at conferences across the county on behalf of LKCF. He’s particularly proud of an award that the foundation received from the American College of Cardiology, a nonprofit society for medical professionals. “They always give it to doctors, and I got the award in San Francisco,” he beams. “First and only!” Yet his hope for the future is even more ambitious: “A pill that ends heart disease. That’s what I’d like,” he insists. “I’d like for there to be no need for the Larry King Cardiac Foundation.”
Shawn’s wish is more about the now. “We have to take responsibility for our own bodies,” she says. “Even if you have a family history of heart disease, you can and should do all you can to live a healthy life, prevent problems, and manage them if they do arise.”
Larry has cut out those three packs of cigarettes that he would devotedly smoke on a daily basis. At this point, he has managed to live longer than his father—who was a heavy smoker and passed away at the age of 46. “He died when I was ten years old,” Larry says. “I liked the look and feel of smoke. The luckiest thing I ever had was that heart attack.”