American Heart Association President John J. Warner, MD, FAHA, was away from the AHA’s Scientific Sessions with his family Monday after having a minor heart attack during the organization’s flagship scientific conference.
Warner, a practicing cardiologist and the CEO of UT Southwestern University Hospitals in Dallas, had the episode Monday morning. He was taken to a local hospital, where doctors inserted a stent to open a clogged artery.
He was recovering and visiting with his wife, son and daughter, all of whom attended Scientific Sessions in part to see him deliver his Presidential Address on Sunday afternoon. In that speech, the 52-year-old Warner talked about the effects of heart disease on his family. He mentioned how both his father and his father’s father had heart bypass surgery in their 60s. He also lost his maternal grandfather and a great grandfather to heart disease.
He closed his speech with these lines:
“Earlier in my talk, I told you there were no old men in my family. I know this is also true in far too many other families, not just in the U.S., but around the world. I believe the people in this room have the power — and even the duty — to change that. Together, we can make sure old men and old women are regulars at family reunions. … In other words, I look forward to a future where people have the exact opposite experience of my family, that children grow up surrounded by so many healthy, beloved, elderly relatives that they couldn’t imagine life any other way.”
Warner, a longtime AHA volunteer, began his one-year term as the organization’s volunteer leader in July. Thus far, he’s represented the organization everywhere from the nation’s capital to Panama and Beijing. Scientific Sessions is usually among the highlights of a president’s tenure.
“John wanted to reinforce that this incident underscores the important message that he left us with in his presidential address yesterday — that much progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Cardiac events can still happen anytime and anywhere,” said Nancy Brown, chief executive officer of the AHA.
Warner spent the bulk of his medical career as an interventional cardiologist, often performing the procedure he underwent Monday morning.
His extensive training in cardiac catheterization came at Duke. In 2003, he returned to UT Southwestern — where he’d done his residency after medical school — to lead the cath lab. He took on other leadership roles over the years, then began expanding his influence beyond his hospital system by working with the AHA.
Warner played a lead role in turning the nation’s ninth-largest city smoke-free and in setting up a chain of survival for people who suffer a particular type of heart attack in Dallas County.
“I began to see the health of my community in a different way,” he said in Sunday’s speech. “Being part of this effort helped me realize that the voices of doctors, nurses and healthcare leaders needed to be heard within the community. … I vowed to do more of this, to broaden my involvement in my community and to make a difference on a larger scale.”
A great opportunity came in 2010, when UT Southwestern decided to build an $800 million hospital. Warner became the physician lead on its design. His efforts were so lauded that he became CEO of the healthcare system in 2012, the same year the hospital opened.
The toughest part of making that move, he said in his speech, was ending his days as an interventional cardiologist.
“You don’t want a guy who wears a suit all day dropping by the cath lab to put in your stent,” he said, laughing.
Warner was born in Lubbock and raised in West Texas. His primary passions as a youth were science and sports, especially running.
He attended Abilene Christian on a track and cross-country scholarship and was part of several NCAA championship teams. During a specific race, he realized he’d be better off trying to become a doctor than trying to make the Olympics.
He went to medical school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, initially thinking he’d go into sports medicine. Cardiology captivated him for a variety of reasons, including his family history.
“The first time I heard the phrase ‘heart attack’ was at age 6, when my great grandfather died suddenly,” he said in his speech. “Like many such victims, he had no known heart disease and his death came as a shock to our family. Later, during my residency, both of my grandfathers died of cardiovascular disease. … After my son was born and we were introducing him to his extended family, I realized something very disturbing: There were no old men on either side of my family. None. All the branches of our family tree cut short by cardiovascular disease.”