Neil Meltzer grew up knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He was going to save the world.

Seriously, that’s how he describes his longtime aim of making the world a healthier place.

His dream job was with the World Health Organization. He pursued it by getting a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental health and health physics from the University of Massachusetts, then a Masters of Public Health and Health Administration from Tulane University.

Although Meltzer never made it to the WHO, he found other ways to save and improve lives across the United States and even around the globe.

He’s done it through a career in hospital administration, working his way up to president and CEO of LifeBridge Health, a $1.4 billion organization featuring two acute-care hospitals, two long-term care facilities and many subsidiaries in the Baltimore area.

He’s also done it through his volunteer work for the American Heart Association. What began as a way to meet people in a new city blossomed into a passion, highlighted by a year as national board chairman and last week with the Gold Heart Award, the organization’s top honor for a volunteer.

“Being so involved with the AHA was nothing I set out to do. Now that I did, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “It’s almost like a calling. It’s kind of odd when I think about it that way, but it’s true. It drives me.”

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Meltzer’s sidestep from world-savior to hospital administrator began at the very bottom. In his first year on his first job, he cleaned rat cages in a research lab.

It came during a stretch of seven summers across high school and college when he worked at a local hospital in his Boston suburb.

“My second job was purging X-ray films, back when there was still film,” he said. “Then I worked in the pharmacy, cleaning bloody instruments and sharpening syringes when they used to reuse them. So I got familiar with every aspect of the hospital field, and I kind of liked it.”

He never seriously considered a medical career. His interest always way the management side, with further influence coming from summertime brown-bag lunches on the steps of the hospital with one of its top administrators.

That relationship proved beneficial when Meltzer graduated from Tulane and the WHO wasn’t begging him to work for them.

“There were no jobs for world-savers,” Meltzer said, smiling.

A few years and one hospital later, Meltzer realized there were more qualified candidates in Boston than upper-level openings. He decided the best way to prove his worth by going to another city. So he took a job as a vice president at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital, a struggling facility at the time.

“We moved the day after Thanksgiving in 1988, driving down the New Jersey Turnpike with a 2-year-old in the backseat of my Plymouth station wagon,” he said. “I promised my wife we’d be back in Boston in five years.

“That was 26 years ago.”

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Before he even knew how his way around downtown Baltimore, a member of the local AHA board recommended that Meltzer come to a meeting. The board member said the volunteer work would require only about five hours a year.

It proved to be as big of an exaggeration as Meltzer’s promise to his wife.

Just like the Meltzers fell in love with Baltimore and decided to put down roots, the would-be world-saver found a home in the AHA.

“I think it’s the best-run, most mission-driven organization I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “And I think the volunteers it attracts are individuals who are extremely bright and have that same level of passion. It’s not a job for them, it’s a life. It makes a difference to how the organization feels, both from the inside and how it’s perceived from the outside.”

Meltzer quickly rose from a local board to a position on what is now called the affiliate level.  There, he felt a bit out of his element as “an entry-level vice president at one of the smaller healthcare systems in the state of Maryland.” He eventually became acclimated, with help from affiliate staff leader David Markiewicz, CEO Cass Wheeler and his Chief Operating Officer Nancy Brown (who has since replaced Wheeler).

Meltzer eventually was on track to become chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate. Only, something else came up.

He was tapped for the national board. And in 2009-10, he became chairman.

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During his year as chairman-elect, Meltzer was driving home from a workout at the gym when he began sweating profusely, became short of breath and felt mild pain in his chest.

“I could go left and go to the hospital or go right and go home,” he said. “So I went home. I figured I was dehydrated and needed some protein. I talked to my brother and he basically said, `You idiot! You know the family history.”

Yes, the Meltzers have a long history with heart disease. That was another reason why the American Heart Association meant so much to him.

Now that he was on the threshold of becoming a recipient of all the AHA stands for, he hesitated.

His cardiologist wanted to perform a procedure right away. A month shy of his 50th birthday, Meltzer actually declared, “I can’t have a catheterization in my 40s.” Fortunately, his wife ignored his vanity and made sure he got the care he needed.

Meltzer had blockages in three coronary arteries and another in an artery that feeds his brain. However, he didn’t need stents, and hasn’t had any more problems.

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Meltzer’s tenure as chairman came while the organization was making strides in health equity and cultural diversity, and opening its first three international offices, all in China.

There also were countless hours spent discussing the organization’s stance on the Affordable Care Act.

“We never really took a stance on the bill, but we were in favor of healthcare for all,” he said.

One of his memorable moments that year was spending an afternoon with former President Bill Clinton surrounding an event for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization that helps build healthier environments for children that was created by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

“We began talking and shared our cardiac stories,” Meltzer said. “He’d just discovered almond milk and had a favorite brand. He said, ` I’m going to have my staff email you the name of this because it’s the best thing.’ And he did. We still drink it at home periodically.”

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The more Meltzer did for the AHA, the more lessons he learned that were applicable in his “real job.” Coincidence or not, he began climbing in that organization, too.

A decade after arriving at Sinai, the hospital had long since shed its label as a struggling institution. He became its president and chief operating officer, as well as a senior vice president of its parent company, LifeBridge Health. Last summer, Meltzer moved up to CEO of LifeBridge.

Among his favorite accomplishments is landing LifeBridge on the Fortune 100 list of Best Places to Work. Another came a few weeks ago at a dinner honoring 90 high-dollar donors to his health system, when a neurologist explained to the crowd that both of LifeBridge’s acute-care hospitals earned the American Heart Association’s Gold Heart Plus Award.

“Do you know how important this is?” the doctor said.

“It was very validating,” Meltzer recalled.

Yet another source of pride is his family – the youngster in the back seat of the station wagon is now a corporate lawyer who does pro bono work on human rights cases. And his daughter is going into her senior year at Hofstra University working toward a degree in community health.

“She wants to do global health,” he said, excited that a Meltzer may yet become a world-saver.

His daughter grew up going to AHA events and picked up on the passion. So has Meltzer’s wife, who has chaired Go Red For Women events in Baltimore.

“I’m watching her evolution in the Heart Association,” he said, laughing. “She’s slowly getting sucked in.”

If she needs any inspiration, she’s got a great example at home – a newly minted Gold Heart recipient.

“It’s kind of weird to be getting an award for something you enjoy doing,” he said. “There’s an intrinsic reward I get every day when I help out.”