As debate continues over whether former Vice President Dick Cheney, 71, received preferential treatment over other patients waiting for a heart transplant, some medical experts have a different question: Will the notoriously gruff Republican emerge from his transplant a nicer person? Past cases have demonstrated that heart transplants can cause personality changes. Will it happen to Cheney? Here's what you should know:
A heart transplant can affect your personality?
Yes. Some "patients who undergo the procedure, just because it is such an existential procedure, have a different appreciation of the small things in life, and a certain sensitivity they haven't had before," UCLA Medical Center's Mario Deng tells Discovery News. Deng tells the story of a cutthroat "type-A" litigation attorney who adopted more altruistic goals after his operation, vowing to spend more time with his family. Other doctors and psychologists claim an organ transplant can rewire a person in a more mysterious way, citing patients who awoke from heart replacements grappling with strange new feelings.
What are some of the examples?
Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, says he has seen more than 70 transplant patients who displayed eerie similarities to the heart's previous owner. Claire Sylvia was a professional dancer who received the heart of an 18-year-old man. After the surgery, she reported craving beer and KFC, just as the donor had. And a 7-year-old girl experienced terrifying nightmares about being killed after receiving the heart of a girl who had been murdered.
Why does this happen?
Schwartz has a theory called "cellular memory," according to which all the major organs develop a degree of memory. "When the organ is placed in the recipient, the information and energy stored in the organ is passed on to the recipient," he says. "I don’t want to frighten people, but I believe transplant patients should be told there is a possibility that they will take on a donor's characteristics."
Is that really the explanation?
Plenty of cardiologists dismiss the idea. Among the more straightforward explanations: "A new lease on life tends to make people happier and more optimistic," says Will Oremus at Slate, "sometimes to the point of temporary euphoria." Any other changes, like adopting a taste for fried chicken, could simply "be a coincidence," or due to an onslaught of new medications.
Could this happen to Cheney?
There's no way to know for sure, says Schwartz. "But is it scientifically possible? Absolutely."