An NBA vet shares his story of lifesaving heart surgery and recovery struggle


In this article:

  • The Providence Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute surgery team use their expertise as the most experienced heart surgery program in the Seattle area to save James Donaldson’s life with an 11-hour surgery. 

  • Dr. Samuel Youssef, a cardiovascular surgeon, along with ICU nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and more worked as a team to help Donaldson through his long recovery. 

  • Donaldson has started a new journey to tell others about his experience and the mental health journey he faced after his heart health emergency.

James Donaldson played his first game of basketball at age 17 — starting a lifetime love of sports and exercise. He was recruited by Washington State University and drafted by the Seattle Super Sonics in 1979, the first and only year the team won the NBA Championship.

His career in sports made him very health conscious. Even after his time in the NBA was over, he went to the gym six days a week. He never expected to need lifesaving cardiovascular surgery, but that all changed on January 3, 2015.

Donaldson will never forget that day. At age 57, he was in excellent shape and getting ready to play a round of golf with his friends. But his back ached, he felt nauseous and he was sweating profusely before he’d even teed off.

“I made the drive over to the doctor’s office,” says Donaldson. “I remember getting to the doctor’s office and vaguely remember seeing the reception counter in his office and from there everything just went black.”

Donaldson didn’t wake up for two weeks.

Recovering with the drive of an NBA player

When he collapsed, Donaldson’s doctor determined he had suffered a heart emergency and called an ambulance to take him to Providence Swedish Cherry Hill Campus. There, Samuel Youssef, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon, began an 11-hour surgery to save Donaldson’s life.

Donaldson had experienced a severe aortic dissection. His aorta (the main artery that carries blood away from the heart and to the rest of the body) had torn open. The tear stretched from the aortic valve (where the aorta meets the heart) to top of the aortic arch (where blood travels to the brain) down to the descending aorta arch that provides blood to the rest of the body. He was bleeding internally and in extremely critical condition.

“We had to use a procedure called circulatory arrest,” says Dr. Youssef. “Essentially, we cool the body down to 18 degrees Centigrade [about 64 degrees Fahrenheit] to protect the metabolic function of the brain and the metabolic function of the body. Once we’ve protected the body, we can reconstruct the entire aorta.”

The procedure was a success, and Donaldson returned to the ICU where he remained sedated and intubated. The ICU staff closely monitored him as he healed.

Two weeks later, he began to wake up, but remained confused and heavily medicated. It took another week or so before he understood where he was and what had happened to him. Altogether, he spent two and a half months in the ICU, with support from his teammates: Dr. Youssef, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses and more.

“His determination to keep everyone on track as if it was an NBA practice was a significant factor in his recovery,” says Dr. Youssef. “He had his mind on his recovery. He never doubted himself.”

“My care team at Providence meant everything to me,” says Donaldson. “We all worked together as a team. That’s really what you need to pull through these adverse situations.”

Donaldson’s journey wasn’t over when he left the ICU. In the five years after the aortic dissection, he had four major surgeries, all at the Providence Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute.

A new journey to improve mental health

The trauma from his near-death experience and his ongoing medical problems began to impact his entire life. It began to affect his family members as he went through a divorce, and it affected his business, which closed. It changed his entire world and harmed his mental well-being.

Donaldson describes 2018 as the darkest period in his life. He could no longer sleep all night, and he went to his doctor for help.

“He diagnosed me with depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation,” says Donaldson. “He was the one that brought it to my attention that I was suffering from these things.”

With the right treatment, Donaldson was able to see a brighter future for himself. He began working on his mental health the same way he would work on his physical health, with the focus of being a professional athlete.

Now he helps others find a brighter future, too. He works as a professional speaker, telling others about mental health and wellness. He hopes his work helps to destigmatize mental health issues and helps others, especially people of color and former NBA players, open up about their own mental health and the issues they deal with.

“This is the next journey for me, being a voice and an advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention,” says Donaldson. “I made it through this, and you can make it through, too.” 

Learn more about James Donaldson's health journey. 


Learn more and find a provider

Are you at risk for cardiovascular disease? Contact the experts at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute at 206-320-4100 to learn more about the cardiac care we offer that can make a lasting difference in your life. You can also visit the Swedish website to learn more about health and safety classes offered at Swedish.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Recognizing a cardiac emergency. What should you do?

Eight essentials for heart health

Revolutionary care for heart valve patients


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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About the Author

The Swedish Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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