If there is one person who is on a first-name basis with the most powerful, celebrated and influential people in the world, it is Larry King. With his global access and broad media reach Larry can get on the phone with anyone from Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Steven Spielberg, to Tony Blair or Bill Gates. Yet, back in 1987, Larry suddenly got on a first-name basis with something he didn’t want to know… heart disease.
Back in 1987 Larry was working non-stop, as he does now, but with a slight difference: he was also smoking three packs a day, eating anything and everything fried and piling on the dessert. We won’t even bother to mention the lack of exercise or the high level of stress that was a given in his job. This lethal behavior continued unabated largely because Larry believed “that heart attacks happened to other people.” Warning signs such as shortness of breath had appeared over a period of time but were quickly disregarded as he lit up another cigarette and went back to work. However, one morning after a fitful night’s sleep, it became evident that something was terribly wrong. First his shoulder hurt and then his stomach. After drinking some Maalox® and lighting up another cigarette, Larry headed to the hospital. Rushed into emergency, it was clear to the staff at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC that Larry was in the midst of a heart attack. In order to save his life, the doctors decided to use the then experimental clot-busting drug called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator). However, there was one little catch: it had not yet been approved by the FDA. Before saving his life, the doctors placed a clipboard with a release form in front of him so that he could sign away any liability in order to be administered this life-saving drug. Fortunately for Larry, he was at one of the few hospitals at the time who were allowed to provide this drug to consenting patients. Today, this drug is part of a standard emergency care protocol.
Larry was in the hospital for five days during which they performed the standard stress test, EKG, and angiogram to measure arterial blockage, of which they found plenty. After the immediate danger had passed, Larry was released. That day Larry stopped smoking, started walking, and switched from steak to turkey and fries to salad. He was doing well until a few months later, when his symptom of breathlessness reappeared. During another stress test, it was clear that surgery was necessary. Larry sought out the best and was introduced to Dr. Wayne Isom at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Dr. Isom is the cardiac surgeon who operated on Regis Philbin and David Letterman.
Larry was scheduled for a quintuple bypass. As Larry filled out the insurance forms he asked, “How much would this cost if I didn’t have insurance?” The answer was $40,000, an enormous sum twenty years ago and not an insignificant sum today. Larry’s next question was, “What would happen if I didn’t have insurance and didn’t have $40,000?” The answer did not make him happy. Basically, for those at the poverty level there is Medicare or Medicaid. However, for the 40-50 million people classified as the working poor, who make enough money to keep themselves above the poverty line but do not have or cannot afford insurance, there are few options other than to go home and wait to die.
Larry was so grateful for the surgery that saved his life that he decided right then and there to try and do what he could to make a difference. He knew he couldn’t change governmental health care policy, he knew he could not save 40 million people, but he did know that he could try and save one life at a time. One of the major reasons for bankruptcy in this country is the inability to pay medical bills.
After his recovery he spoke to his doctors at George Washington University Hospital and at Columbia Presbyterian and made a hand-shake deal that if someone came in with a life-threatening cardiac situation, but could not afford to pay for surgery, the doctors should call Larry and he would fund the procedure. The Larry King Cardiac Foundation was born from these discussions. “A lot of people in this country fall through the cracks and you never hear about them. I figured if I could help just one person, save just one life, I had accomplished something. I never had a real goal for the Foundation, just to help as many people as I could. Little did I know how far the Foundation would go. We started with one and then two patients a year. Last year we helped over 130 people get life-saving surgery that they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. Now, our target for this year is to try and help over 250 people get the medical care that they urgently need. The bottom line is that in this country, this Foundation should not have to exist. But the need is there so we try and make a difference.”
A Heart A Day
As the Foundation grew, Larry knew that he needed help. He turned to his wife, Shawn, to help lead the Foundation as the Chairperson. Shawn’s experience in creating strategies for other Foundations as well as working directly in fundraising was critical to growing the Foundation. As Shawn and the board of the Foundation grew over the years, they saw the need to improve its business processes and become as efficient as possible. It was critical to the board to grow “smart” and ensure that all dollars donated were maximized. It was at this time that Shawn and Larry then asked his son, Larry King Jr., who was currently on the board and working at Intuit, to help use his business background to get the Foundation running more efficiently. Larry Jr. said, “When my father and Shawn asked me to help out at the Foundation, it was an incredible honor as this is his passion. There wasn’t a bigger gift that they could have given me to be involved in the great work of this Foundation. I know it has a positive influence on my three kids to see me involved in such important work.” After collaborating with Shawn on new programs of setting goals and reaching out to partner corporations, hospitals, and medical suppliers, the Foundation has increased its help to patients by 600% over the last two years. “Our motto is, ‘Save a Heart a Day.’”
Shawn and Larry Jr. have accomplished a phenomenal amount during the last three years working together. As Shawn has led the strategic direction for the Foundation, Larry Jr. has focused his efforts on building important partnerships with numerous hospitals to provide services at reduced rates, along with medical device manufacturers who have donated critical components such as stents, pacemakers and valves to the Foundation’s patients. According to Larry Jr., “These donations mean that we can save many more lives than if we were doing this all by ourselves. It is very important to Shawn and my father that the Foundation did not put money into research because there are other foundations working in that area with greater resources than we have. They wanted to make sure that we make a tangible difference in saving people’s lives and that’s what we do.”
Larry King with his son Larry Jr.
Not only does the Foundation get people the immediate medical care that they need, but it is also involved in detailed follow-up after surgery. Larry and Shawn King personally call each and every patient to see how they feel and to inquire as to their needs. The Foundation helps patients make arrangements with social workers and makes sure that they are getting the correct pharmaceuticals.
Despite the fact that The Larry King Cardiac Foundation has been in existence for over 20 years, few people know of its existence. Part of the reason is that while Larry King is probably one of the most well-known broadcasters in the world, the Foundation is a personal mission of his. As Larry Jr. points out, “My dad isn’t the kind of guy to go on CNN and thump his chest that you have to give to the Foundation; that’s just not who he is. But every time we get a new partner or a new donation, he is thrilled. The biggest thing the Foundation needs is support so that we can help more of these individuals. People need to know that whatever they donate is going directly to saving a person who needs help. It doesn’t go to buildings, to research or to equipment. My father helps the Foundation by holding galas, donating money from his books, and in many other ways. Now, if you buy or sell on eBay, you can select the Foundation to receive a donation based on a percentage of your sales.”
In addition to corporate sponsors, the Foundation is supported by everyday people who send in checks to further the Foundation’s patient reach. They know that their dollars go directly into saving lives, not fundraising or advertising. One particular story of a donor is especially touching. About two years ago, a man died of sudden cardiac arrest and left behind an 11-year-old son. The boy, Matthew, did not want to see other people succumb to the same fate as his father so he created a red wrist band along the lines of the Lance Armstrong yellow bracelet, that says, “Be Smart, Save a Heart.” The young man sold them in his school and in the neighborhood on weekends and raised over $2,000. He sent the check to Larry King with a note that said, “Mr. King, would you please use this money to save a father so that this doesn’t happen to another son like me.”
Larry’s Cardio Health
Larry King and his wife Shawn Southwick-King at the Smart Heart Challenge in New York City.
As a result of his life-saving bypass, Larry King is now very aggressive about heart health through prevention. “Daily, I do about 45 minutes on the treadmill or I walk around Beverly Hills. I follow a heart-healthy diet and I take a lot of vitamins including garlic and fish oil. I read recently that the research on fish oil is terrific; it absolutely works for keeping the heart healthy; I take it every day. I know how effective my vitamin program is by how good I feel. In addition to my own routine, I am watched very closely by three cardiologists… one in New York, one in Washington and one here in LA. Every year I do a complete physical, top to toe including a colonoscopy and everything that a 74-year-old is supposed to do.”
In private, Larry King works tirelessly to spread the message on heart disease and prevention. One of Larry’s main concerns is when he spots friends of his smoking. He’ll pull them aside and start talking to them about smoking, then diet, then exercise.
“There’s no reason that the rate of heart attacks in America should not be cut considerably. This is a disease that is largely preventable.”
For further information please contact: Larry King Cardiac Foundation 15720 Crabbs Branch Way, Suite DRockville, MD 20855 www.lkcf.org • 866-302-LKCF (5523)