Six ideas, six years after a nearly fatal heart attack

The column below originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.  This version appeared in the Star News published in the Elk River-Rogers area.

Six ideas six years after a nearly fatal heart attack


Six years ago, on July 4, 2015, I came within 15 minutes of death from a heart attack. Fortunately for me, staff at Health Partners, a 911 operator, ambulance crew members from the local fire department and gifted United Hospital doctors and nurses worked together to keep me alive.

But every year at this time, I think about what I should do with the gift of extended life that they gave me. I hope some of these ideas are useful to you.

First, I spend 10-15 minutes every day doing a few things I’d do if I knew this was my last day on Earth. What would you do if you knew you’d be gone tomorrow?

For me, it’s mostly simple, satisfying things. I wake up early, make sure to tell my wife I love her, and write a few emails or social media posts to thank or praise people, including our adult children, for something they’ve done. Sometimes people respond, sometimes not. Either way, it’s OK.

Second, daily exercise has become a much more important part of my life. Roc Ordman, a college colleague who’s spent decades as a Beloit College professor studying what leads to not only a longer, but also a healthier, happier life, is an excellent resource on this. Earlier this week he sent out an email summarizing a new study. He wrote: “Exercise removes old cells that accumulate with age. Those old ‘senescent’ cells produce toxins that cause most age-associated disease like cancer, heart disease, and dementia. A regular workout, especially for older adults, will provide a longer, healthier life!” (Here’s a link to that research.

Ordman sends out periodic free emails about new research on exercise and diet. He’d be glad to add you to his list; you can email him at

Many friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s smile and nod when I mention exercise, responding with something like, “Yes, but I’m so busy — I know I should but….”

What’s more important to you – than you? What’s more important to your family than a healthy you? Aren’t you worth 30 minutes out of 1,440 minutes a day?

Third, I’m trying to declutter. This is really hard for me. Fifty-one years as an educator, researcher and, writer has produced a lot of paper and many, many documents. There’s much of this I value. Nevertheless, I still have way too much on shelves and file cabinets.

I helped clear out the house after my mother and father died. They had a lot to sort through. I need to work on recycling and donating “stuff” to make things easier for my family.

Fourth, following the advice of a great financial adviser, I’ve given my wonderful wife of 46-plus years, and our three kids, a copy of the names and passwords for bank and investment accounts. Sharing this information can save so much time and hassle after I’m gone.

Fifth, every day I listen and learn from younger people with different backgrounds who are trying to improve the world. It’s so satisfying to be with young people at, for example, Bridgemakers or People for PSEO or young people who’ve experienced homelessness.

They’ve helped me pick up a few issues that I try to work on. Many years ago, a rabbi wrote,  “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Sixth and finally, I try to learn from other perspectives on life and death. For example, you might want to read a July 21 column by a veteran Boston Globe reporter, who writes: “I just learned I have only months to live. This is what I want to say.”

Though none of us will be here forever, I try to follow what Francis of Assisi has been quoted as saying: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” — Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at or JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.