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Widow-Maker: A CIO Story

When Bill Vajda, the Wyoming CIO in 2022, suddenly left his role in January of this year, few knew the real reason why. Here's the rest of the story.

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Government Technology/David Kidd
Back in January 2023, Government Technology reported the story that "Wyoming CIO Bill Vajda Resigns After Less Than a Year."

I’ve known, respected and worked with Bill Vajda for more than a decade, and this unexpected development really surprised me. When I saw Bill at the NASCIO Annual Conference last October, he was doing well and planned to stay in his Wyoming CIO role for years to come. He had a great team and solid technology mandate, so people all over wondered — what happened?

Bill has had a very distinguished career, with roles at the White House working on national security matters, CIO roles for the U.S. departments of Education and the Interior, as well as public-sector service as CIO for the state of Alaska, prior to his role as CIO of Wyoming.

Finally, I got in touch with Bill earlier this month, and he shared his amazing story with me. What follows are the details — straight from him.


I struggled a little about whether I should write this. Some people contribute simply by being the cautionary tale for others, and if my story helps even one person, it's worth sharing, so here goes. I had a massive heart attack that almost killed me.

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Bill's condition
As explained by my attending physicians, I was hit by a "widow-maker" heart attack, and but for a few lucky coincidences, this would be an obituary rather than a story. It's called a widow-maker because it is incredibly rare to survive one, and 99.999 percent of victims don't. I had 100 percent blockage of the LAD (left artery). This creates a 30-minute response window, and time equals tissue. After 30 minutes, the damage to the heart is so severe that recovery is impossible.

I was at home in Michigan when it happened. It started with an inexplicable tightness in my neck and jaw, not symptoms I associated with a heart attack. It got so bad so fast that I couldn't speak or breathe; I lost all muscle strength, and basically collapsed on the floor writhing in agony. Not a pretty sight, since the lack of oxygen was turning me a bright purple and blue. My wife, Simone, came home from work and found me exactly as the attack started. She immediately called 911. The ambulance arrived in five minutes, and got me to the hospital in four minutes. Emergency room surgeons had me in and out of prep within eight minutes, and I was in the "cath lab" and in surgery in under 10 minutes. Modern medicine is a miracle. They were able to push a probe through my core artery and into the impacted area, secure and clear the blockage, and install a titanium stent to repair the damage. It was all recorded on video, and although I could have watched it in real time (had I been conscious), I had the privilege of a guided tour by my cardiologist while in the intensive care unit (ICU) recovering. I remember it felt odd to be discussing such a severe incident so calmly, given I felt perfectly fine a mere two hours after enduring the worst pain I've felt in a long time. Mostly I remember realizing that if I'd been in Wyoming, I'm pretty sure I'd be dead, not enough time for everything to come together like it did.

I asked the doctor what he thought might have been the biggest contributing factor — decades of abusive lifestyle choices, career stresses, genetics, an unfortunate proclivity toward fatalism, etc. — and he said "most likely genes." Whatever I did to contribute to this outcome probably only acted as a throttle compared to the inevitability of it happening. My family history guaranteed I would suffer a heart attack; just a matter of when, not if. My father had two pre-emptive quadruple heart bypass surgeries merely to avoid the attack I had. He was laid up for weeks in the ICU. When my turn came, as surreal as the attack/response was, I made enough progress that within 48 hours I was released home. In fact, I immediately fell right back into my old routine and went shopping in the morning and on a snowshoe hike in the afternoon. Modern medicine is a miracle.

I don't dwell on what might have been. I don't need to add more anxiety to the remorse I feel for putting my family through this. We all have to balance career choices. The few memories I have of my wife in those early moments and the emotional pain I caused her and my boys to suffer will never go away. I can't help but focus on this: Only three years ago I almost died as one of the first victims of what is now known as long COVID-19. Simone insisted with the doctors that there must be other options besides letting me die in the hospital or at home, or I might have checked out a while ago. Our first family chats after the attack reflected these sentiments pretty clearly: "This lifestyle isn't working for you anymore, Dad."

So, while I dwell on my choices, I realize I've ignored some pretty basic assumptions. Life is lived two minutes at a time — about one final breath. What about Simone's choices? She could have had one cup of coffee or a last-minute chat with a colleague. Two or three red traffic lights on a trip home. A few moments of hesitation. An emergency call. Was anything I've accomplished worth as much as her choices in two minutes? How many of my friends will face this same moment? Has anything I've ever done — anybody ever done — given them an absolute two more minutes?

Focusing on the positive, I have conclusive proof that Simone loves me: She's had two chances to let me go and opted instead to keep me around. I know my sons love me. And contrary to what I've kidded for decades, Simone's cooking has not been slowly killing me for the last 35 years, but simply the luck of genetics. I don't appear to have any lasting mental impairment beyond the unfortunate personality I had before. The prognosis is excellent for recovery. If I make it through the first six months, there's a good chance I'll make it through the first year. If I make it through the first year, there's a good chance I'll make it through the first five years. Two minutes at a time.

Now I'm on a new path and a new journey. I know I'll find my way. I've found a role where I can be with people who love me and still make contributions that matter. I'm working with Northern Michigan University to help build a better understanding of what it means to live in the digital age, and how to be safe in cyberspace. My hope is to help businesses, local/tribal/county governments, and individual residents understand the risks they face every time they go online. I get to help my community gain the education, vocational skills and support they need to confidently mitigate cybersecurity risks. I get to help connect employers with employees.

Cyberspace measures time in clicks, and two minutes is an eternity. I'm available and will look forward to any and all contacts and outreach from people who would like to know more. Please send me an email at

My thanks go out to Bill Vajda for his kindness in sharing his remarkable story to the world via my blog. I also thank God that he lived to tell it to us. You can read more here about his new role as the director of the Upper Peninsula Cybersecurity Institute (UPCI) in Michigan.
Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.