A St. Francis Medical Center employee recently was admitted to the hospital in grave condition. The employee’s illness, says hospital president Judy Persichilli, is lifestyle-related. So upset were the employee’s many friends on the hospital staff that Persichilli called a meeting. "I told them," she says, "this year our commitment is to keep you all healthy."

This is a commitment Persichilli would like to see every employer make, and her hospital is offering to help. On Thursday, February 28, at 11:30 a.m. St Francis holds its first Health/Business Connection luncheon. Glenn Laub, chairman of the department of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the Heart Hospital at St. Francis Medical Center, speaks following a networking session. There is no charge, but call 609-599-5659 to register.

Laub says the idea for the luncheon came as he addressed the Mercer Chamber of Commerce last year. "I was shocked at how interested they were in the nitty gritty of heart surgery, and in what we are doing here," he says. The hospital itself is a big business, but Laub says its staff has little opportunity to interact with other area businesses. "We’re always here working in the hospital," he says. This meeting, which will be followed in the fall by a Health/Business Connection luncheon on cancer, is an attempt to bring St. Francis into the business loop, and to let companies know how important they are in promoting their employees’ good health.

Persichilli and Laub each say they work at leading a heart-healthy lifestyle despite their busy schedules, although there is a good deal of banter between the two on the subject. "I know what Glenn will say about my exercise!" Persichilli says with a laugh. While the director of her heart hospital speaks of making time for cardio-vascular exercise at least three times a week, Persichilli makes no mention of a workout routine. Like Laub, however, watches what she eats and avoids alcohol during the week. The only exception is the occasional glass of wine at the many hospital-related dinners she must attend. "It’s always red wine," she says, naming a beverage research has shown to contribute to heart health.

A key to health for Persichilli is the hour she gives herself between rising at 5:30 a.m. and heading out to work at 6:30 a.m. "That’s my quiet time," she says. "I have a bran muffin or oatmeal — both good for the heart, and I read the paper. If the paper hasn’t come, I find something else to read. It just starts my day perfectly." At her desk between 7 and 7:30 a.m., she works for nearly 12 hours, and then, two or three nights a week, goes on to business dinners.

A help in keeping down Persichilli’s stress level, which she says is key in avoiding high blood pressure, is an understanding husband. Tony Persichilli, an HR vice president for Prudential, rises before she does, and also works long hours. "We’re on the same page," she says. "I don’t have to rush home to cook dinner." Instead, the two often make plans to dine out, and area restaurateurs know they need to be served quickly. Says Persichilli, "I’m home and in bed by 9:30."

She teases that "I work harder than Glenn," but she also says, with a considerably more serious tone, "my mantra is, what goes on in the board room pales in comparison to the operating room."

Laub is in the operating room by 7 a.m., and stays there "until I’m done," whatever hour that might be. The rest of the day he says he is available for any emergency. "What that practically means," he says, "is that by 9 p.m., I’m in bed and asleep." He never knows when a call will come during the wee hours of the morning, so he needs to get sleep when he can.

He follows a heart healthy diet, supervised by his wife, Karen Dolores Mueller, a nurse. Persichilli vouches for his dietary resolve. "I watch him pick apart his plate at dinners," she jokes. He doesn’t drink during the week, gets exercise, and claims, despite the long hours he works, to have little stress. "I don’t consider my work stressful," he says. "I enjoy it."

Persichilli shares that sentiment. She has to attend many hospital functions on weekends as well as on weekday evenings, and while she knows many people consider these events a burden, she says she arrives at each "with optimism." Attitude plays an important role in reducing stress, she says. Of the many duty appearances required of CEOs she says, "you can find it stressful, or you can enjoy it." She chooses the latter.

In addition to diet, "a modicum of exercise," and stress reduction, Persichilli says regular physical exams are important. And there is one more thing. She becomes passionate when she declares smoking cessation to be absolutely key in reducing not only heart disease, but also cancer. St. Francis is seeing an increase in both conditions, she says, particularly among Baby Boomers who smoke.

Persichilli received her R.N. from the St. Francis’ nursing school in 1968 and worked there as a nurse until 1976. During the following two decades, she alternated between administrative jobs at St. Francis, and at other companies and hospitals, including the New Jersey Hospital Association and St. Peter’s Medical Center in New Brunswick. She was named president and CEO of St. Francis in 1995. A graduate of Rutgers (Class of 1976), she earned her master’s degree in healthcare administration from Rider in 1980.

She decided a cardiac surgery program was important to St. Francis’ business model and reputation, and would be an asset to the surrounding community. The hospital campaigned for eight years to get permission from the New Jersey Department of Health to start the program, and finally received it five years ago. The cardiac surgery program is ranked among the best in the, and Laub was ranked number one cardiac surgeon in the first New Jersey Cardiac Surgery Report Card. A graduate of Yale (Class of 1978), he received his M.D. from Dartmouth, and served his residency at New York University, Bellevue Medical Center. An associate professor of surgery at Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine from 1990 to 2000, he was co-director of surgical intensive care at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills before coming to St. Francis in 1998.

Laub and Persichilli say they are frustrated to see that many area hospitals are still sending their cardiac surgery patients to New York and Philadelphia. A purpose for the upcoming Business/Health Connection meeting is to acquaint business leaders with their cardiac program. Another purpose is to let them know that St. Francis stands ready to implement on-site employee wellness programs at area companies so that fewer cardiac surgeries will be necessary. Their advice to employers who value the benefits of a healthy staff include:

Provide good insurance. Laub says employers should shop for an insurance plan that encourages prevention by providing wellness services and by paying for diagnostic tests.

Serve salad — and low fat dressing. So many employees remain on-site for lunch at corporate campuses. Get high-fat, high-sodium items off the menu, and substitute lean protein dishes, salad, and other heart-healthy choices.

Host screenings. A number of organizations, St. Francis among them, will set up on-site screenings for blood pressure and other silent, but deadly, health threats.

Provide space for push-ups. Laub points out that a number of large employers have gyms for their employees. If there is room, an on-site gym is a good idea, providing busy workers with a convenient way to keep fit. If not, companies might consider doing as St. Francis does, and offering employees discounts at nearby gyms. Group walks and sports teams are other options.

Hold down the stress. Persichilli and Laub are not unusual in finding their unusually responsible jobs relatively stress free. "Studies show," says Persichilli, "that some of the most stressful jobs rest with people who do not have control, with secretaries and administrative assistants. People can put them in the midst of chaos."

Employees who understand their jobs, have control over their tasks, and work in a culture of respect are less likely to suffer from stress, a condition that is implicated not only in heart disease but also in everything from anxiety attacks to diabetes.

Put out smoke alarms. Persichilli, returning to her most urgent issue, says employees should host smoke cessation programs.

Persichilli and Laub both defy stereotypes of their high-powered professions. Funny, relaxed, and down-to-earth, both see the effects of lifestyle choices on health every day. Yet neither is in a hurry to condemn cheeseburger-eating, workaholic, couch jockeys.

"I try not to be judgmental with patients," says Laub. "I’m more proactive. I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to change risk factors so there isn’t a recurrence. We can give by-passes, but that doesn’t cure the disease."

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