King of hearts

Larry King's ticker nearly turning off for good turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him -- and thousands of needy cardiac patients.

Larry King will declare flat-out that his heart attack 20 years ago turned out to be one of the great blessings of his life. Seriously. Not only did it wake him up to the necessity of taking better care of himself -- eating healthier and dumping the death sentence of a nearly four-pack-a-day cigarette habit -- but it gave rise in 1988 to the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which has since saved the lives of thousands of Americans who otherwise couldn't have afforded essential cardiovascular care and heart surgery.

While recovering from a quintuple-bypass operation after the heart attack, King began to focus on what might have become of him had he been uninsured and in similar dire need. He hit on the idea of the nonprofit LKCF, the sole mission of which is to provide funding for individuals who otherwise wouldn't be able to receive heart care due to a lack of medical insurance.

Some 19 years later, the foundation -- funded by the proceeds from King's books and speaking engagements, as well as a trio of annual entertainment galas in Los Angeles, New York and Washington -- works in tandem with seven cardiac centers across the nation to provide a second chance for those with chronic heart disease.

King's son, Larry King Jr., who has been running the foundation for the past two and a half years, maintains that his focus is "100% on paying for stents, defibrillators, pacemakers, valve replacement and bypass surgeries for the working poor who otherwise would die. We direct our money at individual people who qualify -- period. None of the funding goes to research. We're strictly about saving individual lives."

This year, King Jr. adds, the foundation is on track to provide lifesaving funding for 250-300 patients, with the goal being one patient a day. "We aren't quite there yet," he acknowledges. "We'd need to raise -- through donations and in-kind funds -- $13 million-$14 million a year, and right now, we're at $8 million-$9 million."

By in-kind donations, King Jr. is referring to the fact that doctors working with the foundation perform surgeries at no charge. Hospitals are compensated only for materials used. Medical-supply companies donate products as well. If an individual needs to pay for, say, a bypass out of pocket, it could run upward of $40,000, he points out.

King himself -- who personally telephones each patient the LKFC supports -- refers to the foundation as "the thing of which I am proudest in the world. There's nothing like saving a life. And I mean, to think it all started with an accident. I'm humbled by the fact my name is even attached to something this worthwhile."