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."
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 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
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
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
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,
"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
"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
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.