A long, deep scar curves along Nathan Healey’s chest, coming to an end just above the third button of his freshly-ironed shirt. Barely noticeable at first, it’s just a scar to those first meeting Healey – something that can only be seen in the right light and looking in the right place.
But to those who know its place, the scar is a constant reminder of the day Healey was involved with a near-miracle.
Healey, a former pro player who currently serves as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Freedoms, dodged death and escaped a close-to-fatal heart condition last year after the aortic valve ruptured in his heart. Now the head pro at Radley Run Country Club, the husband and father of two has a new outlook on life, work and every thing surrounding him.
“Being here today, being able to do what I do…it’s amazing,” said Healey, a native of Australia who now lives in Pennsylvania. “I have a new appreciation and perspective on life. I’m really trying not to let anything pass me by.”
With a heart condition that had been brewing for years, Healey realizes how lucky he really is – and how close he came to never waking up again.
Healey’s pro tennis career began in 1998, when he turned pro as a teenager and set out for a career on tour. Healey had journeyman results in singles, and at one point reached the third round of the Australian Open. But eventually, Healey found his niche as a doubles player, where he utilized his skills at the net and standout court instincts to find success.
Playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms for several years, Healey saw success on the World TeamTennis courts as a great doubles player and motivator. Healey also saw success individually, winning the Middle States qualifier during the US Open National Playoffs and making it to the national tournament’s finals, nearly earning a wildcard entry into the US Open.
Years on the court certainly takes its toll on the body, and like so many players, Healey battled through plenty of injuries over the years as he continued his tennis journey. But during that summer and into the next year, Healey felt like he was in prime physical condition.
Then came St. Patrick’s day of 2012, when Nathan’s wife, Marnie, was out for a bike ride with their daughter. Nathan was home with their newborn baby, and he decided to walk upstairs for a few minutes.
“I got to the top of the stairs, and got this tightness in my chest, and shortness of breath,” he said. “I sat there for a couple of minutes and just dealt with it.”
Healey remembers picking up the phone and uttering one of the most frightening sentences he could imagine to Marnie.
“I said to her, ‘I think I just had a heart attack.’”
A few hours later, Healey was lying in a hospital bed, still unsure of exactly what had happened. After he called Marnie, things became a little bit unclear. She had sped home with a friend, who is a nurse, and rushed him to the hospital, where doctors huddled to diagnose the problem. Eventually, they realized that Healey’s aortic valve had burst, releasing a river of blood.
Just like that, Healey was in an ambulance, on his way to the University of Pennsylvania. Marnie, who has experienced recent medical scares of her own, waited for more news. There, in the hospital, Dr. Joseph Woo spoke with Nathan and prepped him for surgery.
“He told me that the odds weren’t great,” Healey said. “He was going to do all he could, but the odds were against me. He couldn’t tell how bad it was or what was really going on in my chest.”
Doctors rolled Healey into surgery, where Dr. Woo began a process that he later described to Healey as one of the most difficult in his career. Hours after first entering the room, he emerged with a smile.
Healey’s life had changed. He would no longer play competitive tennis. But he was alive.
Today, Healey looks back on that day in awe, and has a fresh, new perspective on everything around him. Regular checkups and the scar on his chest serve as a constant reminder of the day he came to death, and how lucky he is to have escaped it.
From the first moment Healey woke up, it was obvious how proud his doctors were to have saved him. Healey said Dr. Woo told him he would write about the procedure in medical journals.
“He looked like he won a [Grand] Slam,” Healey said with a laugh. “He was so proud of his work. I wrote a letter to him thanking him and saying how grateful I am.”
A year later, Healey can easily describe his new perspective. He especially remembers that when he looks at Marnie and their two daughters, Ana and Vieve. He’s traded the competitive side of the game for his position as a coach and pro at Radley Run, where instead of worrying about the serve coming his way, he preps others for how to handle them.
Healey is also learning about a new aspect of the game he never knew in the past: paperwork.
“It’s different and new, but I’m truly enjoying it,” he said. “When I wander back into the professional tennis bubble and think about the stresses I had and the things I had dealt with, it’s easy to get caught up in it. But I have this constant reminder now to take a step back and have a look from the outside about what’s going on. I try not to get concerned with anything anymore, and just enjoy life.”