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This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 16, 1999.
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Heart Attack: Assessing the Big Wake-Up Call
Jim Clingham walks into the conference room in the
second floor offices of Galaxis USA Ltd., exuding the energy and robust
good health of a man who is living well. In summer chinos and golf
shirt, his face and arms already boasting an admirable tan, he settles
comfortably in an office chair and turns a bright blue-eyed gaze on
the interviewer. He looks ready for — well, for anything. There
is nothing in his looks or manner to indicate that less than five
years ago Clingham survived a major heart attack — a wake-up call,
he points out, that challenged him to change for the better the way
he lives his life.
In November of 1994, Clingham was senior vice president of corporate
affairs at the David Sarnoff Research Center. He had been with Sarnoff
for eight years, since the company had moved out of RCA Laboratories
to become an independent research business. For him the excitement
of getting a start-up company off the ground was irresistible. "I
had been at RCA, and had several other job opportunities, but the
challenges involved in starting up Sarnoff were the kind of things
I’m constantly attracted to. The Sarnoff Center is an absolutely marvelous
institution, a leader in many advances in telecommunications. So when
I had a chance to work with some really brilliant guys to get Sarnoff
off the ground, I jumped at it."
He worked as general counsel for Sarnoff, headed up licensing efforts,
helped in the development of three spin-off companies, served on multiple
boards, and was eventually named vice president for corporate affairs.
By late 1994, however, he was beginning to consider different options.
"It was a tough business," he says, "and I had been at
it for eight years. For a variety of reasons, it was time for me to
On a Thursday in November, 1994, Clingham met with the president of
Sarnoff and gave notice that he would be leaving. Although the decision
was mutual, Clingham admits that it came at some personal cost: "I
don’t care how macho you are or how much self confidence you have,
something like this hurts. How do you leave a place you put your heart
and soul into? There was also the fear of what to do next. I wanted
to be useful to people. Would I have to go back to practicing law?
I knew I didn’t want to do that. There was a lot to think about."
That following Tuesday he had a meeting with the chairman of Sarnoff’s
second spinoff company. Business concluded, they decided to get some
lunch. "We walked over to the cafeteria," Clingham says, "and
I remember that we both ate macaroni and cheese. Boy, it looked good
then — but today I won’t touch it!" He returned to his office
and almost immediately knew that something was wrong. "I can’t
describe it," he recalls, "except that it felt like I was
having a heart attack. I didn’t know what the hell a heart attack
felt like, but my arms hurt, I was full of gas, I started sweating,
My secretary suggested it was probably heart burn, but this felt like
Clingham usually worked through any ailment, but luckily he listened
to his instincts this time. He walked over to the company nurse who
took one look at him and said, "You’re having a heart attack."
Within minutes she had an emergency team and ambulance on site. For
Clingham, time went into slow motion. "Everything was a blur,"
he says. "It seemed to take hours before we got to the medical
His luck held in the Princeton Medical Center emergency room, when
he met his cardiologist, John Mercuro, for the first time. Something
about the doctor gave Clingham an instant sense of confidence. "From
the moment I saw him, I knew it was going to be fine. Here’s this
wiry, short, impeccably dressed man whom I had never met — the
cardiologist who happened to be at the hospital when I came in. I
could see he was intelligent, a fighter — like a Napoleon. I had
complete trust in him."
Clingham admits with a rueful humor that once he knew
he was going to live through the heart attack, he found himself worrying
about the future in a way that surprised him. "You know, you’d
like to say you thought of a lot of things — like my wife, of
course I thought about her, we’ve been friends for a long time. And
my kids. But to tell you the truth, what I worried about the most
whether I was going to be stuck in a wheelchair from then on —
whether I would ever be able to get out and play golf really well.
Golf became my focus, my goal. I think it goes to the fact that there
was no Sarnoff to go back to — that I had already made my decision
there. When I was in alcohol rehab, there was an RCA to go back to;
I’d be in the program worrying about what was happening there, who
was taking care of things while I was out. I think golf became so
important because I wanted to feel I could do something viable when
this was all over."
A sense of self worth is indeed an essential component in a successful
recovery from a heart attack, says Charles Dennis, chairman of the
department of cardiology at the noted Deborah Heart and Lung Center
in Browns Mills, and president of the regional affiliate of the American
Heart Association. He devoted the 1980s to a series of studies on
facilitating recovery after cardiac events: cardiac surgery, heart
attacks, and angioplasty. These studies were funded by two National
Institute of Health (NIH) grants aimed at helping people who had experienced
uncomplicated heart attacks return to work.
Dennis notes that the medical community’s understanding of heart attacks
and recovery has improved immeasurably within the past 10 or 15 years
— and part of that understanding involves, at least for most men,
the importance of returning to some type of viable work situation
as soon as possible.
He describes one study, affectionately nicknamed the "Honey, It’s
Time to Start Taking Out the Trash Study," that examined the self
confidence measure of heart attack patients and their wives (until
very recently almost all heart research was done using white male
patients) when it came to variety of daily activities. They rated
them both before and after the patient walked a treadmill test. Before
the test, both patients and their wives uniformly rated themselves
fairly low. The subjects were separated into three groups. In one,
the wife sat in a separate room but spoke to her husband after he
walked the treadmill. The second group watched their husbands walk
the treadmill, and the third group watched, but then they actually
walked the treadmill at the highest level attained by their husbands.
"We found," Dennis says, "that the self confidence of
both the patient and the wife were higher when the wife watched, but
even higher still when the wife walked on the treadmill herself. In
fact, in that group, the wife had more confidence in the husband’s
ability than he did. The study made us realize that we not only had
to influence the patient, but we also the significant other, and the
employer — as well as the primary care physician whose natural
tendency was to say: `Don’t do anything for three months, just sit
around.’ We got people involved in a program of physical exercise.
It built self confidence, and also put them into a social situation
with other people who were recovering, letting them see people at
the end of 10 or 12 weeks of physical therapy who were doing great."
"Until very recently," Dennis says, "heart attack patients
were treated as if something else bad was going to happen to them.
That was medically, psychologically, and occupationally very disabling
to people. Many people think that you’re disabled after a heart attack,
that it takes a long time to recover, but the average uncomplicated
heart attack patient is physically able to go back to most jobs within
a week. Conventional wisdom might say, `Gee, it’s so stressful for
people to go back to the workplace.’ But we measured stress levels
for people with heart attacks and found that the average man working
at the time of his heart attack was more stressed at home, worrying
about what was going on at work, than he was at work."
"We tell people at low risk of future heart incidents that we
need to manage their risk factors: cholesterol, diabetes if they have
it," he says. "If they’re smoking, they have to stop. And
they need to get back into a program that rebuilds their physical
strength and confidence to go back to their occupational work. In
general, the physical recovery in most uncomplicated patients is the
least of their problems. It’s the psychological recovery, and getting
the recognition by other people around that this person is going to
be okay — and sustaining their motivation to support a healthy
lifestyle — that’s far more difficult."
Dennis explains that when it comes to evaluating future
risk and developing a recovery plan, heart attack patients fall into
one of two general categories: uncomplicated or complicated. "Uncomplicated
means they didn’t have bad things like congestive heart failure, unstable
chest pain afterwards, or require angioplasty, or have bad heart rhythm
disturbances that may require additional intervention. Fifty percent
will have uncomplicated heart attacks."
Clingham, whose treatment included an angioplasty, fell into the complicated
category, but his initial recovery still went relatively smoothly.
Maintaining contact with the outside world was important, and the
immediate outpouring of support and concern he experienced while still
in the hospital definitely got him off on the right foot. "It
was a wonderful phenomenon. I had 332 physical representations of
people’s interest in and concern about me when I was in the hospital
— cards, flowers, visits, gifts. It was unbelievable."
For Clingham, concerned about the direction his professional career
was going to take even before the heart attack, an early hospital
visit from an associate at Sarnoff went a long way towards shoring
up his self confidence. He explains: "It was the second day I
was in the critical care unit at Princeton Medical Center. Clark Herman,
a dear friend of mine who had been the chief lobbyist on labor issues
at Sarnoff, was one of the first people whom I had informed —
a day before the heart attack — that I was moving on. He convinced
the nurses that he was my brother, because, of course, only family
was allowed to see me — it was typical Clark. He was concerned
about me personally — but he also wanted to let me know that he
had had dinner the previous Friday with a guy from Germany who badly
needed my help. I was half asleep, thought he was nuts, but knew in
my heart of hearts that here was a message that when I was ready,
all sorts of people would be ready to use my talents."
Returning to viable work of some sort was a strong motivating factor
in Clingham’s recovery process. "Let’s face it," he says,
"work’s really important to driven people like me, with these
type A personalities." He readily traces his drive to excel back
to his Catholic-school boyhood in Providence, Rhode Island, where
his father worked for the Internal Revenue Service and his mother
was a schoolteacher.
"From the time I was a kid, being first in the class, competing
with the other guys like Tommy Fogarty or Austin White, getting accepted
at LaSalle High School, making it to captain of the C.Y.O. basketball
team — that was what was important to me, and that was what was
demanded of me when I went home. I mean, my mom didn’t want to hear
that Austin White had done better at something." The fact that
his one older brother excelled at school set the standards even higher.
That competitive energy continued through the University of Rhode
Island, where he received his B.S. degree in 1964. "I started
out to be a journalist when I graduated from college," he says,
"I loved it, but I never saw it as a real job." While pursuing
a law degree from Catholic University, Clingham was an editor of the
Law Review. He also spent time in the military, serving in the Dominican
Republic and in Vietnam as an infantry captain. Before moving to New
Jersey, he practiced law in New York, Washington, D.C., and Rhode
Island. He also worked for both GE and RCA before it became Sarnoff.
Fifteen years ago, Clingham — a recovering alcoholic
— used that same drive to get himself off alcohol. He believes
that some of the discipline he developed in fighting that battle has
helped him in recovering from his heart attack. "My highest priority,"
he says, "continues to be staying sober. The combination of those
two wake-up calls — 15 years ago that I had to stop drinking,
and five years ago that I had to do something about my lifestyle —
have led me to be much more aware of my life. I don’t have to move
at a thousand miles an hour. Staying focused on helping other people
is primarily what drives me today. If my whole focus in life is on
a job, it becomes stressful. If I focus more on working with other
people, for example in my work with recovering alcoholics, it’s not
stressful at all. Sure, there are frustrations once in a while when
somebody doesn’t get it, or I’m not doing it that well, but it’s not
Clingham credits his family for their support during the heart attack
and recovery period — and through his life transitions. "I
have a wonderful son, a beautiful daughter — they’re both great.
My wife, Deanna, and I have been married for 35 years come October.
She deserves an enormous amount of credit, particularly for some of
the bad times with my drinking. Our experience with that motivated
her to get her master’s degree in alcohol and drug counseling. Now
she’s out saving the rest of the world — doing wonderful, amazing
work with people. Her stories at the dinner table are so much more
important than mine."
Clingham believes that — in addition to watching physiological
problem areas like weight, cholesterol, the need for more regular
exercise — stress reduction was an important part of his recovery.
Once he realized that he was going to be okay, Clingham reevaluated
his career plans. "My original intention was probably to get back
into the large, corporate world. The heart attack forced me to rethink
whether I actually should do that. I found I had lost interest in
going back into the kind of environment where you spend hours at long
meetings — probably necessary for the operation of big corporations
— but those meetings drove me crazy. They added huge amounts of
An important first step in this decision-making was his recognition
that financially he was in a good position to make alternative career
choices. "It took me a little while to realize that I could still
live well making less money" he says, "that I wasn’t going
to have to eat pizza off paper plates for the rest of my life in order
"Was I in a position to just say, `The hell with you all, I’m
going fishing?’ Not really. For one thing, it would have been irresponsible
of me to walk away from some of the groups I was involved with at
the time. I was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and was very involved
with the Private Industry Council — now Workforce Investment Board
— and these groups meant a lot to me. And I was also personally
committed to a number of community service things. In order to stay
involved, I felt I needed a position which allowed me a decent cash
flow, an office, and a little bit of ego-driven work, so I could stay
involved with the Chamber and my other commitments."
During the first six months, he worked as a consultant out of a home
office, working with a number of clients that included Galaxis Holding,
a German company involved in the worldwide research, manufacture,
and distribution of consumer electronic and satellite products. "My
average morning might involve taking two or three phone calls, taking
care of two or three pieces of immediate business. But then I’d get
in my hot tub and read the sports page. Around 10, 11 o’clock I might
decide to get dressed, have lunch with someone I’d set a meeting up
with — or maybe not. That’s the way I started my recovery, and
it set a mindset that said: `If I decide to start working for anyone
else, it’s going to be at my own pace.’"
In hindsight, Clingham feels that his heart attack actually facilitated
his transition from Sarnoff. "If I had left there without having
had the heart attack, I might have felt a huge loss — because
no matter what I did next, no matter where I went, it couldn’t have
been as exciting as those first few years of helping Sarnoff get off
the ground. Having the heart attack changed the focus from all that
ego stuff. The focus became, how am I going to survive? What are my
Clingham currently holds the position of vice president, international,
for Galaxis, and also maintains his own management firm. The arrangement
suits him. "Here I’ve been able to set my own pace, make my own
hours," he says. "Sure, there’ve been problems, huge frustrations
along the way. But now I have much more control over how I balance
things. If a conference meeting is called off at the last minute,
I can make the decision to take off at noon and go play golf. Arguably
I could have done that at Sarnoff, but I would have known that I was
walking away from some management issues, that I was possibly letting
some of my staff down. There’s not that type of pressure here."
He likes and respects his staff, thinks it’s great to have his office
on Nassau Street, "It’s so Princeton — I love being part of
Clingham firmly believes — as do many doctors — that stress
contributes to cardiac problems. But Deborah’s Dennis insists that
the medical world has yet to identify any scientific relationship
between stress and heart attacks. "It’s a really a tough area,"
he says. The data based on the "Type A" personality type is
out of vogue now. "What was learned from that, though, was that
there is probably an underlying anger and a hostility component in
some people who are type A. And that research indicated that people
with that type of anger or hostility component seem to die earlier
or have more complicated courses of recovery," says Dennis.
"I always tell patients who say they have a lot of stress that
it’s probably not so much the stress itself, but how you react to
and channel the stress in your life — productively or destructively,"
says Dennis. Measurable physiological factors, he believes, are much
more important — particularly when it comes to maintaining cardiac
health and preventing heart attacks. "The physiological factors
are clear and treatable," he says. "Are they smokers, do they
have high cholesterol, do they have high blood pressure, do they have
diabetes? We have very good treatments now for most of these indicators.
We can change prognosis for a future heart problem dramatically just
by getting cholesterols down to a very low level by putting patients
on protective medicines, or by getting them off cigarets and so forth."
Despite his apparent robust health, Clingham knows that maintenance
and vigilance are important. Shortly after his initial heart attack,
Mercuro discovered that one of his arteries was almost completely
blocked and brought him in for another angioplasty.
A year later, in Florida on vacation with his wife, Clingham woke
up "hurting like hell . . . It was the first time things had been
His physical the next week confirmed that the artery
was once again blocked up. "I made Dr. Mercuro promise that when
he went in this time, that he would do everything that needed to be
done — whether it was open heart surgery or what," Clingham
says. This time a stent was inserted in the artery.
Clingham has felt fine since, but now recognizes that things will
never be back to "normal." Says Clingham: "I understand
now that this is an on-going process. Still, knowing what guys like
John Mercuro can do, I don’t worry. Someday there may be the need
for them to do open heart surgery on me, but every day the medical
procedures get better and faster — so if that time comes, I’ll
still be confident."
He acknowledges that his recovery regimen still isn’t perfect. "I
probably need to do more exercising. I should probably cut back on
this stuff (indicating his second cup of coffee). I’m playing a lot
of golf, but I should really be doing it more to enjoy myself, not
just for the score." He even admits to a real no-no — sneaking
an occasional cigaret. Dennis agrees that maintenance is the most
difficult challenge for most people. "When people haven’t been
living a healthy lifestyle, heart attacks are a great wake-up call.
They tend to get religion. The question is, how long are they going
to keep religion?"
While admitting that there’s always more he can do, Clingham also
reflects on the significant changes he has made in the past five years.
"I think people will say that I do things differently now. There
was a long time, in my drive to get ahead — beating out the Austin
Whites, being a better military officer, etc., etc. — when I didn’t
give a damn about the other guy or what they thought of me. That’s
not true anymore.
"In the long run, I think it comes down to the joy of living.
Some days I’m really tired, I’ve been beat up by one thing or another.
But I think that if, at the end of the day, you feel that you did
whatever you were doing pretty well, then you’ve had a great life."
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