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NICK'S STORY: A CAUTIONARY TALE

By Mark Sutcliffe, The Ottawa Citizen

Just over a year ago, Nick Pantieras thought he was invincible. And why not? He had just been won an award as one of Ottawa's top young executives. He was one of four partners in a rapidly growing real estate company that was pulling off multimillion-dollar deals.

Only five years old, Primecorp Commercial Realty was becoming a success story, with new offices in Toronto and Montreal. That alone was enough to keep Pantieras and his partners working long hours, but he also wanted to expand his horizons and the company's. In the space of a couple of years, he had gone back to school to earn both his MBA and his Chartered Management Accountant, without skipping a beat at work. It's not like it was all about work, though. He was a part-time musician, playing keyboards in a successful band that had just released its first CD. He and his wife had three daughters, all of them under the age of three.

Balance? There was some, but like it is for so many entrepreneurs, the balance was a kind of high-wire act. "I was in overdrive for three years,'' he says. "I thought I could do anything.''

Today, Pantieras has a different view of life. He tries to work a maximum of 40 hours a week. He doesn't work weekends. Just this week, he felt a bit of a cold coming on and took the day off to rest. He's still closing the big deals, but if the occasional opportunity falls through, he doesn't lose any sleep over it.

A year ago, at 37, Nick Pantieras found out he wasn't invincible.

When he had gone back to school, something had to give. He had been the captain of the football and basketball teams at Glebe High School, so he had always been in good shape. But the one thing he had less time for now was sports. After a year off, he was looking forward to resuming his weekly game of hockey.

His first game back was on a Sunday night, Sept. 21, 2003. "I was already thinking about winning the scoring title,'' Pantieras remembers.

Late in the game, he started feeling sharp pain across his chest. He lay down on the bench for the final few minutes. "I thought I was out of shape, that I just couldn't catch my breath."

The game ended and he went for a drink and even drove himself home, thinking it was a combination of indigestion and a year without exercise. But when he didn't feel any better and he thought of his daughters sleeping in the next room, he decided not to take any chances. He called 911 and went to the hospital.

A few hours later, a doctor was telling him he'd had a heart attack.

"No way,'' Pantieras remembers thinking at the time. "Test me again.''

After all, there was no history of heart disease in his family. "I had no idea what a heart attack was,'' he says. "I thought it was something that happened in your 60s.''

Within days, the news went from bad to worse. Instead of finding a small obstruction that could be fixed with angioplasty, doctors told him he had severe blockage and would need open-heart surgery. On Oct. 1, he had a double-bypass operation.

The prospect of surgery was frightening, but Pantieras was overwhelmed by the care he received from the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and the support from his wife, his family, his partners, and even total strangers. Suddenly people were showing them their chest scars, telling him they had made it through heart surgery and so would he.

"The day of the operation was like My Big Fat Greek Surgery,'' says Pantieras. "There were 30 people in the waiting room.''

Pantieras spent the next three months recovering and discovering how precious life is. Each little step -- a Thanksgiving dinner at home with his family, putting on a suit for the first time to go back to work -- would bring tears to his eyes.

Back at work since January, he lives a much different lifestyle from a year ago. He exercises regularly, he eats healthier. He's 40 pounds lighter, but an even bigger weight has been lifted from him: the stress of trying to do it all.

"I got rid of all the stuff that wasn't important,'' he says. "I'm not building for retirement; I want to smell the roses as I go, not at the end.''

Pantieras is once again the managing partner for Primecorp, and he figures his new outlook makes him a better business person, someone who can see through the clutter and focus not just in life but in the boardroom. And he's proud to have become a cautionary tale. His story has become one of those that gets repeated: Did you hear about Nick? Thirty-seven years old, athletic, successful, no family history and all of a sudden he has a heart attack.

"A lot of people have changed their ways because they heard my story,'' says Pantieras. "I get e-mails all the time.''

He has a message for anyone who is living the way he was a year ago. You think you're invincible? You're not.

"It can happen to anyone,'' he says. "Men know more about how our cars work than how our bodies work. Don't take your success for granted. You have to be aware of any signals your body is giving you.''

But not even spreading that message will become a source of stress for the new Nick Pantieras.

"I can't save the world,'' he says. "All I can do is share my experience with whoever wants to listen.''

Mark Sutcliffe is an Ottawa entrepreneur, business journalist and broadcaster who can be heard weekday on 580 CFRA. He can be reached at marksutcliffe@sympatico.ca. The Heart of the Matter

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