7 Lessons Learned from a Heart Attack Scare

Tuesday I found myself in the cardiac care unit of NYU Langone Medical Center.  On the way to the emergency room I wondered for a few minutes if I were on my way to meet my old friend John Harrell on the other side. Friends, please note that this is a post from 2009, archived from the now defunct project management blog. It’s good to remember from time to time the transience and impermanence of this phase of our lives. You are eternal, but only on this earth for a short time. Now’s the time to prepare for what comes after this.

Table of Contents

The Hospital

Almost no one wants to be in the hospital.  If you’ve never been a patient, know that it’s no vacation.  You have by default abdicated basic control of your body.  You can expect to be poked and prodded, hooked to machines, dressed in a sheet, and woken repeatedly throughout the night for blood to be taken. You are surrounded by strangers, away from familiar settings, and probably scared. You’re moved by wheelchair or stretcher and discouraged from walking.  The experience is profoundly unsettling. It’s also necessary – these people you’re trusting are working to restore your health and perhaps your life.

I’ve always considered myself relatively healthy.  I neither drink nor smoke and have been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years.  My heart attack scare arrived out of nowhere.  The sharp, pressing chest pain intensified steadily over the morning hours and began to radiate leftwards down my back, side and arm. It left me in unfamiliar territory with a renewed appreciation of life’s fragility.  It certainly wasn’t on my agenda for the week. 

Lessons Learned

Here are 7 lessons from this week’s wild ride.  They’re presented to both inspire and encourage you to listen to your own heart as you progress on your work/life journey.

1. Listen to your heart

My heart’s been trying to talk to me for months now.  I haven’t been listening.  It finally found a way to get my attention.  When our bodies take direct action to get our attention, it’s seldom pleasant. Is there anything your heart’s trying to tell you that you’re doing your best to ignore?

Do yourself a favor. Listen.

2. Value your work community

The night before my scare I mentioned to my wife that on the previous 2 days I had experienced more positive interactions at work than I could remember in any comparable period over the previous six months.  On Monday I had had a delightful lunch with a Hindu friend who graciously shared some of the precious and hard-won lessons from his life.  In a different conversation a coworker described his hunger to experience the vast open spaces which connect him with the sense of something greater than himself.  His fear of this epiphany was only slightly exceeded by his longing.  On Tuesday morning a coworker casually asked about a book on listening he had seen on my desk.  Our resulting conversation invigorated his natural curiosity and marked an instant of mutual respect and genuine connection.  As social creatures we desperately need these moments.  Over time the moments become threads, the threads networks and the networks communities.

These are your lifelines.  Value them.

3. Let yourself accept help

Super-achievers are excellent at both helping others and doing things for themselves.  We’re often less skilled at accepting help. When my chest pain expanded past my ability to ignore it, I had to make a conscious choice to disregard my programmed do-it-myself response.  I approached a colleague my gut told me I could trust, and asked for help.  She listened in a calm, matter of fact way.  After truly hearing, she got the insurance company nurse hotline number and suggested I call right away.  When the insurance company instructed me to waste no time in getting to the hospital, my colleague respected my desire for privacy by not broadcasting the situation throughout the office.  She dropped what she was doing, got me to a close hospital, accompanied me to the emergency room, stayed with me, and provided a much needed anchor.

Let yourself accept help.

4. Care as much about your health as you do about your company’s or project’s success

For many of us solving problems, organizing teams and being part of the solution are essential to our self-image.  Many US companies have fired so many people that those left have job responsibilities too broad for one person to achieve.  As heroes and good corporate citizens, we fill in the gaps.  Such behavior can kill you.

Better is the attitude and behavior of my friend Sara.  When asked to take on yet another project by her manager, she replied, “I am doing A, B, C and D.  If I add E which would you like me to move to the bottom of the list?”

It’s easy to believe in your physical invulnerability.  Even if we’ve seen or heard about a coworker fall to stroke or heart attack, we never think it could happen to us.  Let my experience be a lesson for you.  Decide the limits of your work, and keep to them. Few jobs are worth giving your life for.

Care as much about your own health as you do about your work.

5. Accept that sometimes failure is the best option

Once a project leader I know sent around an email to his team which read, “Failure is not an option.” Do you think this is true? I used to believe it, but now I’m not so sure.

Some projects are doomed.  Even if a project has hope of success, sometimes the project manager has her hands tied in ways that almost guarantee the project won’t succeed.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have other PMs failed on this project before you?

  • Is this project continuing down the same path as others that have not worked well?

  • Are your proposed risk solutions consistently ignored?

  • Have consultants walked away from the organization or the project?

Sometimes superhuman efforts won’t work.  Be conscious of the danger to your health of trying to prop up an effort that the organization has already doomed to failure.

Sometimes failure is the best option.

6. Take 100% responsibility for your situation

It’s very easy to fall into the habit of blaming others for our unhappiness.  This sense of powerlessness over our work affairs can be subtle or not so subtle.  However it manifests, the result is a de-energizing, de-humanizing pain.  As the DC psychologist and radio talk-show host Pamela Brewer used to say, “If it’s unacceptable, it’s unacceptable”.  No matter what craziness exists in your work life, you must take the stance that you are 100% responsible for what happens to you.  If you have done everything in your power, and you know that you can’t succeed, then you must redefine your work until you can be successful.  If your employers will not support you, then you know what you have to do.

Take 100% responsibility for your situation.

7. Resist the urge to move into your zone of incompetence.

Both Gay Hendricks and Robert Biswas-Diener use similar models to group the skills we each use at work.  These are the zones of genius, excellence, competence and incompetence.

The zones of competence and incompetence contain those skills we use to do things at work in which our results are not so good. These are tasks we don’t enjoy doing, are not natural to us, and often take us more time and effort than they would for someone else to do.

Think about the things you do at work which cause your heart to drop when you think about them.  It’s likely that these are in your zones of competence or incompetence.  Get rid of them all.

Resist the urge to move into your zone of incompetence.


Without love, nothing that we do has any real meaning.  Value the people in your life and especially your coworkers.  Let them know you appreciate them in a way that they will understand.  Buy them coffee.  Bring in candy or treats.  Smile because you mean it.

Treat yourself with respect.  Don’t wait for your workplace to appreciate you.  Take 100% responsibility for your health and well being.

My story had a happy ending.  It turned out not to be a heart attack.  Nevertheless the heart attack scare was a real wake up call.

Have you been through anything similar?  Has it changed you in any way? Your feedback or suggestions will be appreciated.


Paul December 14, 2009 at 7:31 pm

A decade ago I had a similar experience. I argued with the nurses for tying to take away my cellphone and my laptop in the cardiology unit. Thats how insane I was. Lessons Learned:

  • I learned that I had zero skills for managing stress. That I had build my life around winning praise and recognition from others.

  • That I could not deal with so called ‘failure’ because I believed I was unworthy – so needed ‘success’ to compensate.

  • That we have only one heart (there is no backup). That we have only one life on this world – there is no test-run.

  • That the road to ‘hell’ is paved with good intentions (exercise, smoking, diet, time for me) and that my heart attack was a speeding ticket on that highway.

  • Today I have learned to be free from stress and fear. Not easy in a job seen as stressful by many (PM).

  • Today I love my job but love myself and my family even more – so I try to get balance.

  • From time to time stress sneaks back. My heart and my guts talk to me then. Today I listen.

Respect Paul

Hemanth December 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Alec – So glad to hear that you are unscathed. Your post really puts things in perspective as one progresses in a career and assumes more responsibilities. Thank you!

AJ February 28, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I’m happy to discover your website. I like the conclusion that you wrote. I will keep those in mind.

Alec Satin February 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Hi AJ,

Glad you enjoyed the post. Was actually reading your blog this afternoon – look forward to future posts.


raghavendra mannur March 13, 2010 at 1:32 am

I also ent through a similar situation. I am 71 years old and was working till the previous day of my heart problem. I,too, used to assume that this terrible thing won`t happen as I am still active. How wrong was I! I was listening to my heart. But the remedy used to scare me. So I kept on postponing to get myself cheked up by doctors because I did not have that kind of money to spend on medical bill. But it happened at last. Everything went on smoothly. Money came frm nowhere and I am here more healthy & fit after my bypass surgery. It was wonderful lesson…..


Alec Satin March 15, 2010 at 9:59 am


Quite an experience. Appreciate your posting it.

May you continue to be healthy and well.


Alec Satin
Alec Satin

Your editor is a Bible-believing Christian with no illusions about our darkening age. Keep reading your KJV. If you don’t have one, get a printed copy with good type and read it every day. May God bless you, keep you, and protect you.