BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Growing up in West Texas, John Warner loved the outdoors and sports. Most of his free time was spent fishing, hiking and running. Those passions blended into a natural path for his future.
He ran his way to a track scholarship at Abilene Christian University, a championship program known for producing Olympians. As he chose his course of study, his joy in being outdoors initially lured him toward a career that would keep him in nature. He wanted to become a forest ranger.
When Warner becomes the 81st president of the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association on Saturday, it’s quite likely he’ll be the first who had set out to work for the Parks & Wildlife Department. And he certainly will be the first chief executive officer of a healthcare system to hold the post.
The runner who wanted to be a forest ranger is now CEO of UT Southwestern University Hospitals, the incoming president of the AHA/ASA and still maintains a cardiology practice, seeing patients every week.
Warner’s path from West Texas teenager to these prestigious roles is quite a story, filled with twists and turns – inflection points, as he likes to call them – often leading him to unexpected opportunities.
Science and service are twin threads woven into Warner’s life.
Service came first. Providing for others was a core value instilled by his parents, who volunteered in their church and community and involved their children in delivering meals or mowing the lawn for someone who had been ill or injured.
Warner’s dad, Reid, was dedicated to helping others, both in his career as a CPA and in his community service. In fact, he became so involved in the community that others talked him into running for mayor. He agreed because he thought he could make a difference.
John Warner’s lifelong interest in science was piqued by some of his dad’s accounting clients who practiced medicine. They would talk with him in passing about school and his goals, and they shared a little about their careers. He was attracted to the dedication they had for their work and the examples they were in his community.
When Warner got to Abilene Christian, he began working toward a biology degree, something that he thought would marry his interests in science and the outdoors. As he took courses in entomology and botany, he found that he really enjoyed the physiology of those classes, “getting down to the cellular level,” he said. He discussed that with several of his professors and some of the doctors who’d been his dad’s friends and clients. That’s when he realized that service wrapped in science is the essence of a career in medicine.
Warner wound up heading east for medical school, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He planned to combine his love of sports and science and pursue a career in sports medicine.
But during his first year of medical school, he found himself drawn to the physiology of the heart and exercise. Soon, cardiovascular disease drew his interest.
Two summers working in the lab of Rose Marie Robertson, M.D. – who would soon become AHA President and is now the AHA’s Chief Science and Medical Officer – reinforced his direction. It also showed him how much he enjoyed the variety of missions and activities inherent in an academic medicine career.
Then came another choice: Become a heart surgeon or a cardiologist?
The answer came in the form of another question. Struggling during a surgical rotation to decide whether to apply for residencies in surgery or medicine, Warner asked a lead surgeon at Vanderbilt for advice; in return, the surgeon asked Warner what he’d been reading about the night before: disease or the operation to address it. When Warner reluctantly replied, “Disease,” the surgeon responded, “You have your answer.”
Once he began doing clinical work – getting to know patients and their needs, figuring out their treatment plan, dabbling in surgery via cardiac catheterization procedures – Warner knew he was in the right place.
He did his internship and residency at UT Southwestern, then went to Duke University for cardiology and interventional cardiology fellowships.
Warner returned to Dallas and UT Southwestern in 2003 for a multi-faceted role. In addition to seeing patients and performing interventional procedures, he’d also help develop a heart service line in a hospital the institution had bought.
For several years, Warner learned the ins and outs of being a leader. He led the cardiology fellowship program and oversaw research projects.
The more varied his experiences, the more he was reminded of a something from his athletic career: The importance of teamwork, and how every person’s contribution matters. It would soon become a key to future successes. In 2010, the system decided to build a new hospital and needed someone to oversee the project. After interviewing several leaders, the UT Southwestern President decided he wanted an active clinician to lead the effort. Warner received the role, making for his next major inflection point.
Well, the hospital he oversaw now stands 12 floors, holds 460 beds and cost $800 million. The William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital is widely considered state-of-the-art and is nationally recognized for its patient experience.
“It was the most amazing year of my life,” he said. “I really enjoyed getting to know the broader community and figuring out how everything, and everyone, works together to make great patient care.”
The plan was for Warner to finish the project and get back to where he’d left off.
But around that time the UT Southwestern University Hospitals CEO retired.
Warner was approached about the job. Much like when his dad became mayor, Warner was honored to take on a role where he thought he could make a difference in the lives of people.
One of Warner’s first patients upon his return to Dallas in 2003 was Ron Haddock, a businessman and heart disease survivor who’s an active AHA volunteer. Haddock liked this young doctor and encouraged him to come to a local AHA board meeting.
Warner liked what he saw. Haddock could tell, so he said, “I think you should be the next president.”
“He doesn’t waste time,” Warner said, laughing. “It’s hard to say no to him.”
Warner spent four years as the division president, then joined the board of the SouthWest Affiliate.
As his involvement ramped up, Warner realized how many of his mentors and respected colleagues were highly involved in the AHA. At Duke and at UT Southwestern, Warner worked with former AHA Presidents Gus Grant and Clyde Yancy, current President-Elect Ivor Benjamin, and many other colleagues who led many of the AHA’s science and education initiatives.
Better still, Warner expanded his network of mentors through his work on the Dallas AHA board. The businessmen and community leaders he met, and the knowledge he gained, served him well while building the Clements Hospital.
“That was a very vibrant group of people with a different way of thinking than doctors,” Warner said.
Along the way, he was involved in launching a program to speed treatment for people in Dallas having a severe type of heart attack. He also was the physician point person fighting for local smoke-free ordinances, and on an award-winning campaign called “Don’t Die of Doubt” that encouraged people to call 911 at the first sign of a heart problem.
Warner knows firsthand the issues and challenges facing the fight against heart disease and stroke, the top two killers in the world. As president of the AHA/ASA, he gets a bigger platform to influence this battle.
He arrives at a pivotal time, too, as the burden of cardiovascular diseases is growing. Pace of progress has slowed and some mortality rates have begun creeping in the wrong direction.
Warner knows he can’t personally change that – just like he couldn’t personally build a hospital.
But with the right leadership and strong teamwork, there’s no telling what could happen.
“The AHA president gets to be in the room with many other people – policymakers and legislators, some of the greatest science minds and world-recognized clinicians,” he said. “In those rooms, it’s my role to amplify the voices of others.
“There’s a chance to have a broader impact. That’s why I got into science.”