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Freedom fighters convene to support Methodist heart center

Houston, TX - 10/26/2009

When the Iron Curtain finally fell in 1989, it was brought down by blows from all fronts: the sledgehammer shots from Poland’s Solidarity party, the covert aid to freedom fighters in Afghanistan and diplomacy from the United States.

Leading figures from all three of those fronts — former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson and former U.S. president George H.W. Bush — came together Saturday night in Houston to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the crumbling of Communism, and to raise funds for heart disease research at The Methodist Hospital.

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara appear as honorary co-hosts of the Leading Hearts gala in Houston Oct. 24. Mrs. Bush received heart surgery at The Methodist Hospital in 2008, and the former President and First Lady appeared to help raise funds for the hospital’s Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center.

Not only did each have a tie to the fall of the Soviet Union, but each man’s life was touched by the work and treatment of doctors at the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center. Wilson received a heart transplant at Methodist in 2007, Walesa was treated for cardiomyopathy there and former First Lady Barbara Bush received a new heart valve at Methodist in 2008.

The evening brought together more than 1,000 people who watched as Wilson and Walesa were interviewed by CNN television host Larry King, who also had heart surgery 22 years ago. King did not interview the two men in person; recovering from the flu, King conducted the interview over satellite from a studio in Los Angeles.

Former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson are interviewed via satellite by CNN television host Larry King
Former Polish president Lech Walesa, left, and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, who were both heart patients at The Methodist Hospital, were interviewed at the hospital’s Leading Hearts gala Oct. 24 by television host Larry King.

Many of the questions King asked dealt with each man’s heart problems and their subsequent treatment at Methodist. “The scariest thing for me was the helicopter ride from Lufkin down to Houston,” Wilson said. “But when I saw the hospital and met the people at Methodist, I immediately had a sense of well–being. These are people who know what they are doing.”

Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson
Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, subject of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” is interviewed onstage at the Leading Hearts gala in Houston, Oct. 24. Wilson, who received a heart transplant at The Methodist Hospital, was interviewed about his health and about politics by television host Larry King.

As congressman for the Texas 2nd district from 1973–1996, Wilson is best known for his work as a powerful member of the Defense Appropriations Committee. With the help of the Central Intelligence Agency he helped to funnel billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters during the Soviet-Afghan war during the early 1980s. Many believe this effort led to the defeat of the Red Army and, ultimately, the fall of the Soviet Union. His exploits were chronicled in the 2003 best–selling book Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile, and the movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks.

As talk turned to politics and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Wilson was equivocal on whether to increase the amount of American military force in that country. “On one hand, I would think the best thing to do is to stick it out a while longer … and hope the President gets good advice. But on the other hand, you can make a strong argument to send in more troops.

“No one has ever figured out a way to conquer Afghanistan. The country is a bad place to start a war … ask the Evil Empire about that,” Wilson added.

Former Polish president and Nobel laureate Lech Walesa
Former Polish president and Nobel laureate Lech Walesa greets a crowd of more than 1,000 people at