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Will Cheney's new heart make him nicer?

Eric Niiler

Discovery Channel

Will Dick Cheney's new heart make him a gentler, mellower guy? Some medical experts think it's possible.

The 71-year-old former vice president has been recovering after Sunday's heart transplant at a hospital in Northern Virginia. News reports say he's been able to stand and is receiving support from his family. Cheney has had five heart attacks, the first at age 37, and has been on the transplant list for 20 months.

Cheney is also a feisty political figure who political observers say reshaped the power of the vice president's office during his two terms as President George W. Bush's second-in-command. Medical experts say that heart transplant patients often undergo a change of philosophy, personality and values once they recover.

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"There are experiences where 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," said Mario Deng, medical director of UCLA Medical Center's heart transplant program.

Deng recalled one patient, a "type-A" personality and corporate litigation attorney at one of the top law firms in the nation -- who changed big-time after his heart attack and transplant.

"He was always bottom-lining his agenda and other team members," Deng said. Afterward "he realized there are so many more value systems than this one that he is living. Not only does it impact his relationship to his wife and kids, but switches gears and puts his expertise to other causes, more altruistic ones."

Deng says that the heart is a special organ, one that has tremendous cultural, symbolic and psychological meaning. As for changes to Cheney's personality, "you cannot predict what is going to happen," Deng said.

In fact, one expert says its possible that personality traits of the heart donor -- his or her musical tastes, food preferences or other memories -- could actually resurface in Cheney. This theory of "cellular memory" was developed by Gary E. Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.

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In 2000, Schwarz studied 10 such cases and published a paper on the subject in the journal Integrative Medicine. While the sample size was small, Schwartz says the unusual examples of donor's preferences, memories and tastes being revived in the recipient "cannot be explained as being the side effects of the medication or the stress of surgery. They also cannot be explained by recipients getting information about the donors from other sources."

Over the years, there have been well-known cases of this kind of transplant transferrance. In 2008, 47-year-old Claire Sylvia wrote about her intense cravings for beer, Snickers and fried chicken -- things she had never liked -- after receiving the heart of an 18-year-old motorcycle accident victim in her book "Change of Heart."

Still, Schwarz, who has drawn some criticism for his work with mediums, has one caution for those hoping for a kinder, gentler Cheney. He says most of who undergo these personality changes "are open to receiving that information and acting on it."

"I can't speak to whether Mr. Cheney would have that or not,” Schwarz said. “But is it scientifically possible? Absolutely."