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In October 2015, a month after starting his new job as CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz suffered a massive heart attack and went on medical leave.
It would be five months until he fully resumed his role as CEO.
But Munoz told the audience at Glassdoor’s Recruit Event Tuesday that he didn’t let his near-death experience side-track him or his mission.
As Business Insider’s Ben Zhang previously reported, Munoz had his work cut out for him when he took over as CEO: He had to clean up the mess his predecessor’s bribery scandal had left. Negotiations with the flight attendants’ union had broken down. And five years after a merger with Continental, United still felt like two airlines.
Within two months of his heart attack, he was back at work, balancing his recovery with keeping the mission alive.
During that time, Munoz knew he needed a heart transplant. But he said that he didn’t want rampant speculation and public scrutiny about his health to affect the business, so he kept it quiet.
On January 5, Munoz’s 57th birthday, he attended the airline’s strategy retreat with other United senior leaders.
While at the event, Munoz’s physician called him up and broke the news: “Have I got a kick ass heart for you.”
After sharing with his wife that a new heart had become available and saying a prayer, Munoz attended a meeting with his senior execs.
“That morning, the team decided that our first ‘North Star’ value objective was that we needed to regain the trust of our employees before we did anything else,” he said.
Around lunchtime, Munoz told his team about the transplant and headed off for the 11-hour surgery. He said that, in retrospect, his parting words – “I’ll see you on the other side” – may have alarmed some of his colleagues.
Munoz hadn’t been CEO for long at that point, but he said he was overwhelmed with emotion by the sheer amount of mail and supportive messages he received from United workers while recovering from the surgery.
“I know that the foundation of this company is this group of incredible human beings,” he said.
Munoz ultimately left the hospital a week after the surgery, “a few hours short of the heart transplant recovery record set by a 20-year-old,” according to Business Insider’s Ben Zhang. Still, rumors swirled about his health.
“The talk ranged from ‘He’s not going to live very long’ to ‘He wasn’t qualified to begin with,'” Munoz previously told Business Insider.
Two weeks later, however, Munoz received the chance to signal he wasn’t going anywhere – surprising everyone by unexpectedly jumping on United’s earnings call.