It was the Thursday before Labor Day in 2004 when Dr. Anthony Pucillo — whose practice deals primarily with coronary artery disease and peripheral arterial disease — got a call about a patient who needed a catheterization. The patient, a middle-aged Chappaqua man, was suffering from chest pains and shortness of breath.
“I said, ‘Fine, give me the patient’s name,’” Pucillo, who was then with Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, recalls. “I wrote the name down.”
And did a double take.
Bill Clinton. As in former President Bill Clinton.
“I thought it would be straightforward, but it turned out to be more complicated,” Pucillo says. Because of the circumstances — the first time a former president was catheterized — “I had to do a lot of organizing, which caused some sleepless nights.”
Through it all, the former president remained his trademark convivial self. “I was probably more nervous than he was,” Pucillo says, remembering the young Secret Service agents waiting outside the operating room.
Clinton was then transferred to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center for successful bypass surgery. Four months later, the former president returned to Westchester Medical Center to dedicate a new cardiac catheterization unit to be run by Pucillo.
“I was asked to say a few words,” he recalls. “The number of reporters and photographers was overwhelming.”
Indeed, he could’ve become a celebrity doc after that. The New York Times and Charlie Gibson of “Good Morning America” came calling. “I’m not interested in that,” Pucillo says.
What he is interested in is being exactly what he is — a serious, disciplined physician on the cutting edge of arterial disease. Today he is an assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology at Columbia University Medical Center, practices at Columbia Doctors Medical Group in Hawthorne and White Plains and serves at the director of cardiac operations at NYP/Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville.
“I can’t remember a day when I thought of doing anything else,” he says during an interview at his White Plains office. “My father had a good friend who was a physician.” And the profession caught fire with him while he was a student at Mount Vernon High School. He went on to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with the idea that it was a good place for a young man with a medical career on his mind. After graduating from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, he did his internship, residency and fellowship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Then he was recruited by Westchester Medical Center.
“I thought I could bring some of the sophisticated things I had been taught to do to the center, and we did a lot of great work there.” Now he’s back with Columbia.
One of the reasons Pucillo is so enthusiastic about the heart is the great strides being made in the field of cardiology. His arterial work takes him not only to the heart but to the kidneys, the intestines and the legs, enabling him to combine mind and hand, the intellectual challenge with the actual procedure.
Due in part to new treatments, drugs and greater public understanding, “we see a lot less young men dying of acute heart attacks,” Pucillo says.
Nevertheless, heart disease remains the primary cause of death, according to the World Health Organization, followed by stroke and various lung illnesses. (In this country, heart disease is also the number-one killer, followed by cancer, accidents and stroke.)
With heart disease, “it’s a matter of seeking the right medical care for the evaluation of the symptoms,” Pucillo says. Clinton didn’t have crushing chest pain. Women may not have the classic chest and left-shoulder pain but may present with fatigue, nausea and/or shortness of breath.
In evaluating his patients, Pucillo takes a nonjudgmental approach. Shaming smokers or the obese is not for him, he says. Rather he works with the patient to find a solution to his or her coronary issues.
There is a lot that the general public can do as well, he says, and it involves well-known measures — exercise; a heart-healthy/Mediterranean diet that centers on fish, fruits, vegetables, grains and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts); alcohol in moderation.
Pucillo doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk, keeping his compact physique trim with careful eating and cross- and interval-training.
“Part of it is good for my own ego,” he says. “But it’s also about setting an example.”
Pucillo seems to cope with stress through a touch of whimsy: His office is decorated with sheet music covers of songs containing the word “heart,” gifts of a patient.
To which WAG adds the chorus of Mumford & Sons’ “Winter Winds”: “And my head told my heart, ‘Let love grow.’ But my heart told my head, ‘This time no, this time no.’”
It should be the other way around, we say.
“Yes,” Pucillo says with a grin.