For United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, October 15, 2015 started like most days — with an early morning trip to the gym.
However, by the end of the day, Munoz would be wheeled into the ICU of a Chicago area hospital after suffering a massive heart attack.
At the time, Munoz, then 56, was just 37 days into his tenure as United’s chief executive.
Fortunately, he survived. And after a heart transplant, the United CEO returned to work just months after the heart attack.
Recently, a rejuvenated Munoz sat down with Business Insider in Chicago for an interview in which he touched upon his medical crisis, health advice for people in high stress jobs, and a crucial piece of advice that he believes saved his life.
Here’s an excerpt from that interview:
Benjamin Zhang: It’s well documented that you were an athlete and a vegan, yet you suffered a massive heart attack one month into your term as CEO. Do you have any advice for people in high-profile, high-stress positions?
Oscar Munoz: I do have a lot of advice, but with regard to what causes heart disease and the concept of stress and workload and travelling and all those things, clearly taking care of yourself is helpful, which I was.
Clearly, nutrition is great. I was a vegan, so being an athlete and a vegan certainly sounds like it would be the right thing to prevent something like heart disease, but it’s highly genetic. Heart disease is twice the cancer deaths in America, and it’s a silent killer. So someone like me who has no knowledge or previous history of anything can literally just fall.
Zhang: Is there anything people can do to put themselves in a better position to survive a situation similar to yours?
Munoz: The trick there is that people have to know that anytime they feel something — I use the term “weird” because one of my doctor friends had told me that before — they should call 911.
If my friend, a cardiologist, hadn’t told me the story that he told me … He said: “Call 911 and immediately tell them where you are because you may not make it past the phone call.” When he said this, I remember saying, “OK, Mark, you’re being a little dramatic.”
I felt weird and crawled to my phone. When you are on the 50th floor of a building, GPS isn’t going to find you necessarily quickly, so I used the landline.
Zhang: What symptoms did you experience?
Munoz: Heart-failure symptoms are many and varied, and they differ greatly between men and women. Mine was nowhere near my heart — my legs gave out. And I said, “Boy, that’s weird,” and I got a little clammy and that’s it. You talk to 20 patients, they had pains in their left shoulder … so there are just so many and varied, and I had no history. That’s the thing: Most people have no history. It’s just plaque that builds up inside your arteries. It’s kind of like plaque on your teeth. You can’t go to the dentist to clear that up until it’s too late. So the advice is, if you feel weird, call 911 and immediately tell them where you are because you may not make it past the phone call.
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