Reflecting on a nearly fatal heart attack

This column originally was published by ECM Publications

Reflecting on a nearly fatal heart attack

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Having a nearly fatal heart attack just over a year ago changed my life. I hope my July 4, 2015, emergency helped improve not only my life, but also the experience of many readers. Here are a few thoughts about you and me.

First, I’m in awe of how four different, distinct medical systems worked together smoothly to get me to a hospital within 15 minutes of the time I felt that there was potentially a big problem. Health Partners, 911, St. Paul ambulance and the nurses, doctors and staff of United Hospital – Allina Health showed incredible skill, speed and collaboration. Doctors at United told me that I probably would be dead if I had arrived even 15 minutes later than I did!

Part of my work over the last year has been to join others who are encouraging greater cooperation between the K-12 and college and university systems. There is a lot to learn from medical systems about mutual respect for professionals and a focus on what’s best for those being served.

Another part of my life has been trying to help make the kind of excellent health care I received available to all.

Next, I feel thankful to the hundreds of people who wrote to me with funny, touching and sometimes eloquent comments. That also includes family members and my best friend, to whom I’ve been married for 42 years.

One of the things I’ve tried to do more of in the last year is to thank people who’ve done something good. There’s plenty of complaint and criticism, and I’ve done some of that, too. But I concluded that I should spend more time thanking others. So I’ve tried to do that.

Third, based on advice of family and doctors, I’ve re-evaluated priorities in my life. Doing this column is still something that’s very important. But fortunately, I’ve been able to cut back on other work activities. The Center for School Change, where I worked, has hired two new co-directors, Malik Bush and John Miller. They’ve graciously allowed me to work part time.

At the same time, as one friend wrote, “Being active and engaged is deep in your DNA, no doubt.” So I’m continuing to work on a few issues.

Remaining active is possible because doctors gave me great advice: exercise more, lose weight, change your diet and drink more water. Sounds simple. But those of you who’ve done those things know what it means. Fortunately I’ve been able to do all of them.

If you haven’t had your yearly checkup, how about this month? If doctors have advised changes, are you following up? Or would you rather risk, to put it frankly, fewer – maybe many fewer – years with those you love?

Surviving and feeling better than I have in years has come from a combination of great medical assistance and personal responsibility. Both are vital.

People sent me many insightful and encouraging quotes when they learned about my heart attack. One of my favorites was from J.R.R. Tolkien: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Perhaps now is a good time to think about that.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at