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Copyright © 2001, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines

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Arnold the Barbarian

By John Connolly
March 2001

The old saw says that if you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything. It is probable that this man, once named chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness by the first Bush Administration, is not as healthy as he would like the public to believe.

In April of 1997, Arnold’s then publicist, Catherine Olim, informed the world that Arnold had undergone elective heart surgery to replace an aortic valve, at the USC University Hospital in Los Angeles. In a statement attributed to the then 49-year-old star, he assured his fans, “Choosing to undergo open-heart surgery when I never felt sick was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I can now look forward to a long, healthy life with my family.” Olim told the press that the operation was to correct a congenital heart condition. “Steroids,” she declared, “have nothing to do with this.”

But Pumping Iron director George Butler, who shot 6,000 still pictures of bodybuilder Arnold in various poses before he started work on either the book or the movie, and who has maintained a relationship with Schwarzenegger for more than 20 years, says, “During the operation, doctors removed his heart from his body and replaced one of the heart valves with a pig valve. During his recovery, he was rushed back to the operating room, where the doctors again removed his heart and implanted two more pig valves.”

A patient undergoing valve-replacement surgery has several options. An aortic valve can be replaced by the patient’s own pulmonic valve, after which a valve taken from a pig replaces the pulmonic valve. Mechanical valves are also an option. The advantage of using pig valves, according to Dr. Leonard Girardi, assistant professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Manhattan’s New York Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital, is that “you do not need to be on blood thinners; you could just take an aspirin [which acts as a blood thinner] and that would be sufficient.” The kind of medication required to maintain a mechanical valve, Girardi says, doesn’t jibe well with an athletic lifestyle. Still, pig valves have a downside: They deteriorate. “A pig valve, in general, will last an average of 12 years or so. I have seen them last as long as 20 years.” This is not necessarily an issue for a patient who undergoes the procedure at age 78; but Schwarzenegger’s surgery occurred several months before his 50th birthday.

Carla Ferrigno, the wife of bodybuilder Lou, has, like Butler, known Schwarzenegger for more than 20 years; she says, “It’s funny how he is trying to change history.” She says she has spoken to two doctors who were in the operating room during Schwarzenegger’s procedures, and the account she heard squares with Butler’s.

A doctor who’s friendly with the Kennedys (Schwarzenegger’s wife is a Kennedy niece) says he is well-acquainted with the details of the operations and speculates that Schwarzenegger’s medical problems might be related to his use of anabolic steroids during the years he was a bodybuilder. Another doctor, Alan Leshner, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Bethesda, Maryland, describes some of the effects of steroid use: “Steroids interfere with protein function; they work by promoting protein growth and body mass. At the same time, they are all related to androgens in one way or another. So if you put on a big protein load, you could have kidney trouble. . . . You could have cardiovascular problems because it affects the heart as well.”

Over the years Schwarzenegger has either downplayed the amount of steroids he used (in a 1987 interview in Playboy, he said, “I don’t worry about it, because I never took an overdosage”) or skirted the question entirely. But Wendy Leigh’s book goes into detail about his use of the drug, as does True Myths, British film critic Nigel Andrews’s book on Schwarzenegger. According to Andrews, Austrian bodybuilder and trainer Kurt Marnul introduced Arnold to steroids in the old country. In the book, Marnul said, “There was no weight lifter in the world who did not take them. You could get prescriptions for them from the doctor. Arnold never took them, though, without my supervision.” When asked, “Was Arnold taking them?” in Andrews’s book, the late Vince Gironda, owner of Vince’s Gym in North Hollywood—where Arnold first trained when he moved to California—replied, “Is a frog’s ass waterproof?” (Schwarzenegger has hedged about drug use in other ways as well. In the Playboy interview, he denied ever having used any kind of recreational drug; yet in Pumping Iron, there’s a sequence showing Arnold basking in the glory of his Mr. Olympia win, enjoying what George Butler says was a substantial joint.)

Despite the diminishing domestic box office returns of his pictures, studios still pony up big bucks for Schwarzenegger’s services. He is still slated to star in Terminator 3, though the possibility of its being made seems to grow dimmer with every announcement or news story. The fact that his star may be waning has led to renewed speculation that Arnold the Kennedy might pull a Ronald Reagan. Schwarzenegger has long espoused right-wing politics—he campaigned furiously for George Bush in 1988, concocting (or at least pronouncing) the infamous sound bite, “I only play the Terminator. When it comes to the American future, Michael Dukakis will be the real Terminator!” He’s also often hinted that he might eventually seek political office. In the Loaded article, he said, “In America I could go all the way to Speaker of the House. I think I could bring a little spice to the job. I think I could put a little fire up their asses.” The governership of California has been mentioned; that would be another jewel in the crown, another fitting step-up in a life story so amazing that if you had made it up, nobody would have believed it. In a recent interview with Christina Valhouli of Salon.com, Schwarzenegger dances around the question of whether he will run for political office. In answering her question, “Is it true that you’re thinking of running for Governor of California?” Schwarzenegger replies, “I have thought about it many times in the past, but I have no specific plans at this point.” Perhaps he knows to quit while he’s ahead.



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