Victor Parsenett

WFS Financial

Beth Israel Hospital

American Heart Association

Corrections or additions?

This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 16, 1999.

All rights reserved.

Don’t Think `Not Me’

Each heart attack, each recovery, each heart is very

different. While Jim Clingham’s story is one of hope and a return

to normalcy, Gerry Schwab’s is a cautionary tale. He’s sharing that

tale in order to do just that: to caution corporations and fellow

executives about the risk of heart disease — and to convince them

that a little prevention goes a long way.

In 1984, Schwab was a hot young finance executive already well on

his way up the corporate ladder. At 34 he was a vice president at

United Jersey Bank. He and his wife were commuting from their Monmouth

County home where they lived with their son, then eight.

Although his professional life was rocketing upwards, Schwab’s body

was taking a pounding. "I was like any other 34-year-old person

concerned about making as much money as humanly possible in the shortest

period of time. I was climbing the corporate ladder as efficiently

as I could. As a result, I was bringing an enormous amount of stress

down on myself. I was smoking three packs of cigarets a day. I was

50 pounds overweight, and I was doing no exercise, because I had virtually

had no time."

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Victor Parsenett

On Friday, April 13, 1984, as he was leaving work for the weekend,

Schwab suffered a major heart attack. When his cardiologist told him

that he would have to learn to live with the permanent loss of almost

34 percent of his heart muscle, his immediate response was disbelief

— then anger. "Well, that’s just terrific," he said. "How

the hell do I do that?" Victor Parsenett, his cardiologist, responded,

"With a lot of perseverance, and a change in your attitude."

The doctor was absolutely correct. In the weeks and months immediately

following the attack Schwab gave up smoking for good, lost a great

deal of weight, watched his diet, began working out regularly. But

once he reentered the corporate world, he found himself slipping back

into old habits, making his way up the corporate ladder once again.

"I’m the typical Type A personality, and that behavior had always

rewarded me before," he says. "Soon I was totally submersed

in work."

In spite of this, Schwab remained in relatively good health for the

next 10 years. He left UJB in 1990 and went out on his own. In 1995,

however, it all caught up with him. He experienced two cardiac episodes,

the second of which required the surgical placement of an ICD (implantable

cardio-defibrillator) under his rib cage to correct a potentially

life-threatening arrhythmia.

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WFS Financial

Two years later, while in Las Vegas doing corporate training for WFS

Financial (a national indirect auto financing firm), Schwab experienced

a sharp heart pain — angina — while walking down the strip.

By 12:30 the next afternoon he was once again with his cardiologist

at Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital. A heart catheterization revealed

that one of his main arteries was 99 percent blocked.

After performing an angioplasty and the insertion of two stents to

open up the artery, Schwab’s cardiologist stopped in for a visit,

saying he thought it was time for Schwab to retire. "My doctors

told me that if I continued to work they could guarantee only five

years of relative good health. If I quit now, they would guarantee

me 20." Schwab followed his doctor’s advice. In 1997 he retired

from his position at WFS Financial. He was only 47 years old. By this

time, he had remarried; his wife, Heidi, is a corporate vice president

at Summit Bank.

These days Schwab is very involved as a volunteer with the American

Heart Association (AHA). Like Jim Clingham, he found that the support

and educational information available through the AHA was invaluable.

He also felt he had been well cared for by many health care professionals

over the years, and now wanted to give something back. His work with

the AHA includes helping with the Heart Walks and other fundraising

efforts, and lobbying in Washington, D.C., for greater support for

heart research.

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Beth Israel Hospital

Earlier this year he also became involved in running

a pilot program at Beth Israel Hospital where he visits and talks

— from a patient’s perspective — with hospital patients who

have recently received, or are about to receive, an ICD implant. "It’s

been great therapy for me, and I’ve been told that it’s been of great

benefit for people who are just getting them as well."

Schwab sees his true mission, though, in working through the AHA speakers

bureau to get the word out to corporations and their employees that

heart attacks are preventable. He knows the drive and pressures that

corporate managers impose on themselves. "It’s the people who

don’t want to be told what to do," he says, "who strive for

greater responsibility and higher income, who work their way into

management. Well, nobody teaches them along the way that if this is

what you want to do, then this is the way you have to handle your

health, and this is a way to handle stress more effectively. So you

end up totally submersing yourself in your work, and ignoring your

personal health."

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American Heart Association

With associates from the AHA, he’s offered successful presentations

at events like corporate fundraisers or golf outings — but he,

along with the AHA, is confused and frustrated by the resistance put

up by most corporations when a free program is offered. "Cardiovascular

disease is the number one killer in this country," he says. "This

year it will kill more than 960,000 people nationally, 30,000 in New

Jersey — which is more than the next six most deadly diseases

combined, including breast cancer and AIDS. It will cost the U.S.

government and corporations $280 billion in lost production and wages

and hospital costs. Yet — aside from certain heredity factors

— this disease is, for the most part, preventable."

He feels strongly that the same aggressive consciousness raising that

raised awareness about diseases like breast cancer and AIDS must be

employed to educate the nation about cardiovascular diseases. "And

the only way that’s going to happen," he says, "is through

corporate awareness. Corporations in this country have to do something

about promoting wellness, particularly cardiovascular health, to their

people. This not only benefits their employees, but it contributes

to the company’s bottom line as well."

Charles Dennis, chief of cardiology at Deborah, agrees. "It’s

critical that we start at the corporate level and point out: ‘This

is good for you. Look, the average person who has a heart attack will

stay out of work for three months. If you can prevent that heart attack,

you’re not going to lose business, you’re not going to lose productivity,

you’re not going to be making disability payments.’

"While working on cardiovascular research in the late 1980s, we

did a general survey of companies in the Silicon Valley. The average

company told us that it was probably going to cost them between $75,000

to $150,000 to have one of their executives out with a heart attack.

My guess is that corporate heart attacks are at least as expensive

in the Princeton corridor.

"I say to corporations and individuals, `Don’t let the heart attack

happen. Put some incentives there for people to start losing weight,

stop smoking, have their cholesterol checked and managed.’ I know

companies may feel that this type of prevention initiative is difficult

to measure. The problem is, when you’re successful at it, nobody knows.

It’s hard to count the number of heart attacks that didn’t happen.

But when it comes to heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases,

prevention works."

"This is a devastating, life-altering experience," Schwab

says, "and anyone who tells you that it’s not isn’t being honest

with themselves. It’s also a terribly devastating experience for your

family. There’s no job on the face of the earth that is worth it.

I had a nine and a half room bi-level, a Porsche 911 Turbo in the

garage to use on the weekends, and I was making a significant amount

of money."

"But when you’re laying in the hospital, and the doctor’s telling

you that you may die in the next 72 hours — none of that matters.

These days everyone knows someone in their life who has cardiovascular

disease. Talk with them. Learn from their experience. Use the knowledge

for your benefit, and don’t be an idiot like I was. Don’t think, `Not


— Tricia Fagan

This year’s Mercer County Heart Walk takes place on Saturday,

September 18, at Mercer County Park. Larry Krampf, president of Princeton

Communications Group at 20 Nassau Street, chairs this year’s event.

More than 2,000 people are expected to participate, and the Heart

Association hopes to raise $175,000. Contact Lori Danko, AHA community

services director for Mercer County, at 732-821-2610.

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