How David Letterman Survived Emergency Heart Surgery

Angiogram Saves Late Night Host

The Late Show with David Letterman. Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor / Getty Images

If late-night talk show host David Letterman were ever to write a Top-10 list of the reasons he needed coronary artery bypass surgery at age 52, chief among them would probably be that his father died of a heart attack at the same age.

Letterman was fortunate enough to escape his father's fate -- but not without intervention. A routine checkup in early 2000 found a significant arterial blockage around his heart.

Quintuple bypass surgery performed after an angiogram put the comedic giant among the ranks of the roughly 260,000 Americans who undergo the lifesaving procedure every year.

Letterman suffered no complications and spent several days in the hospital. He returned to host the Late Show with David Letterman after a six-week recuperation. "In addition to re-routing the arteries," Letterman joked after surgery, "they also installed an EZ Pass." His first live show after returning featured eight members of the medical team that cared for Letterman during his hospital stay. The doctor who performed Letterman's surgery said he had "the heart muscle of a 20-year-old."

Angiogram and Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery

Angiograms involve threading a catheter and injecting dye into the heart vessels to see blockages by x-ray, while bypass surgery re-routes blood flow through grafts, or replacement vessels, to bypass blocked vessels.

Letterman had one upon the recommendation of his doctors, because of his family's history of heart disease. The main goal of bypass surgery is to prevent heart attacks, which strike 920,000 Americans annually, killing 157,000.

The heart has five major arteries. When a coronary bypass is performed, it replaces one or more of the blocked vessels.

In a quintuple bypass, all five have blockages and need to be replaced It is often done as a scheduled surgery, but in Letterman's case, it was done as an emergency procedure. The grafts used are taken from the leg and sometimes from the arm.

Letterman's Heart Disease Risk Factors

Letterman's father, Joe, survived a heart attack at the young age of 36, at a time when Dave was under six years old, leaving Dave worried about losing his father throughout his younger life. Joe died of his second heart attack at age 57 in 1973 when Dave was just 26 and still living nearby in Indianapolis. He moved to Los Angeles to start his comedy writing career a couple of years later.

Letterman has also been known to enjoy cigars, another risk factor. He alluded to his ominous family history and high-cholesterol levels during a presurgical interview with Regis Philbin,  who underwent a successful emergency angioplasty to unclog cardiac arteries in 1993. He admitted to being an alcoholic for many years, then stopped drinking. Excess alcohol consumption can contribute to the risk of heart disease.

Life After Heart Surgery

Letterman's rapid return to television life was unmarred by further cardiac problems.

He signed again and again with CBS to continue the Late Show. He decided to retire and his last show was aired on May 20, 2015 at age 68. He married wife Regina Lasko after they had a son born in November, 2003. He lived a full business life with numerous projects as well as a full personal life.


"At-a-Glance Summary Tables." 2008. American Heart Association. 5 Sep 2008 

Brody, Jane E. "Personal Health: Cigar Smoking." 29 May 1996. New York Times. 10 Dec 2008 

 "Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery." 2008. Stanford Hospital & Clinics. 31 Aug 2008 

"Letterman Expected to Fully Recover From Heart Surgery." 15 Jan 2000. CNN. 10 Dec 2008