The Difference between Impressive and Cool
As Cliff Hammond and I take our coffees into the living room, I notice a framed Blues Brothers movie poster.
“That’s cool,” I say.
“Very cool. It fit the bill perfectly”
Cliff goes on to explain, “I have a rule with my kids. They’re not allowed to spend a lot of money on birthdays. They have to come up with something that is cool, not impressive.”
This is not simply a lesson in frugality or somehow letting them off the hook. He continues, “I think it’s important that they understand the difference between cool and impressive. It’s easy to spend money on something impressive. To achieve cool, they have to think about it. And keep their eyes open.”
The framed poster of the Blues Brothers would have made it into a trash can if his daughter hadn’t noticed and diverted it. A set of Tiki-themed bar glasses from his son has a story of its own. He offers other examples. The gifts are clever. They are thoughtful. They are fun. They reflect the close relationships he has developed with his children, and a parenting style that fosters resourcefulness, creativity and humor.
Cliff indicates that he himself didn’t always understand what he calls the “difference between impressive and cool,” and the kind of worth that has little to do with money. While he’s always been a charismatic guy with a determined attitude, it took some profound experiences to fully grasp the value of a good network and the power of a well-adjusted attitude, as well to cement his firm beliefs in the importance of paying it forward, and the deep reward of charity for its own sake.
A Rotary Moment
Cliff likes to talk about his “Rotary Moment”, a formative experience of his own that taught him a lot about that difference between impressive and cool. Somewhere around 1999, he was invited by a local Boy Scout Council Executive, John Reid, to join the Huntington Rotary Club. Cliff then transferred to the Huntington Station Club, then back to Huntington five years ago.
According to the website, www.rotary.org, Rotary is a “global network of 1.2 million neighbors, friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who come together to make positive, lasting change in communities at home and abroad.” Their motto is “Service Above Self.” For more than 110 years, their guiding principles have served as the foundation of their values: service, fellowship, diversity, integrity, and leadership. Their over 35,000 clubs work together worldwide to promote peace, to fight disease, to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, to save mothers and children, to support education, and to grow local economies.
It’s also a good place for a local businessman to network, make friends, and build a good reputation in the community. At first, this was the primary driver of Cliff’s participation. Among the friends he made was one of the senior members, Dominic Iannone.
“Dominic and this other guy Frank Paul, who was a Charter Director of a Gift of Life program, apparently had me targeted as fresh meat. I had no idea.” He proceeds to tell a story:
“At that time I was still learning the difference between cool and impressive. I had this car I was very fond of. I thought it was impressive. Dominic comes outside with me after a meeting and starts complimenting it. Good way to hook me. He runs his finger along it as says, ‘This is a nice car.’ Then he says: ‘You know, Cliff, I’m getting old. Too old to drive at night. I wonder…could you do me a favor? I kind of put myself in a jam…’
He does this in the way some old Italian guys like him really have down pat. A way that’s really hard to say to ‘no’ to. He says, ‘If I pay for gas and parking, could you help me pick a friend up at the airport?”
Like I said, he had this way. What could I say? I agreed.
So, we get to the airport. I might have noticed something was up because he was wearing his Rotary jacket, but I’d never seen him in anything but his Rotary jacket, so…I didn’t think to ask.
We’re standing there. This gal comes out of the gate from Honduras and walks up to Dominic and me. She’s carrying a paper bag and a package. She had to be about 5’ tall. Maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. She hands the package to Dominic. He hands it to me.
I look down, and I’m staring into the eyes of a 7 month old, 7 pound baby that was as blue as a berry. You can see pictures of stuff like this and it moves you, but…I tell you…it’s a whole lot different face to face. I stared into those eyes. I didn’t know if in ten minutes this kid was going to be dead or alive.”
I looked at Dominic…’What the…???’ He then explains to me, very calmly and matter of factly, that we were going to go to the hospital in the morning and get her all fixed up.
‘Welcome to Rotary,’ he says.”
Cliff focused on holding that baby, and they went back to the car. Cliff will tell you that he considers himself a pretty tough guy. Macho, even. He will also tell you that, on that particular evening, it took him about twenty minutes to figure out how to turn the key in that car; a vehicle whose importance had suddenly taken on a very different meaning.
“Dominic was right. We fixed that baby right up…and Dominic had me hooked.”
The Gift of Life
“My piece of Gift of Life is so small,” says Cliff, “I am completely and totally replaceable by anyone with a heart and half a brain.”
We’re not so sure about that. However, we will admit that this lifesaving project is enormous, both in its reach and its impact. The mission, as stated by Gift of Life International is to “provide HOPE to children with heart disease and their families, EMPOWER doctors and nurses to treat children in their country of birth, build SUSTAINABLE pediatric cardiac programs in emerging countries and expand our global reach through PARTNERSHIPS with like-minded organizations, maximizing our impact.”
After his ‘Rotary Moment,’ Cliff became increasingly involved with Gift of Life. He has held a secure seat on its Board of Directors in Suffolk County since 2003 or 2004.
The structure of Gift of Life is complicated as it is highly decentralized. It is a project undertaken by 205 Rotary Clubs and 46 Rotary Districts, but it is not really something that is owned by Rotary. There are 77 autonomous Gift of Life Programs around the world. Gift of Life, Inc. is the Nassau Country organization. In Suffolk County, Gift of Life is a project of Rotary District 7255. An international umbrella organization has blossomed, but even that is not officially a Rotary program, nor is it central administration for the various entities that work to advance its mission. Instead, it serves as a communications hub, where those serving the mission can share their work and seek support.
“Let me give you an example,” says Cliff, “Say a group in California wants to do a $.5M project in another country. They call Gift of Life International. Gift of Life International publicizes the project and helps drum up support. Say another program wants to set up a Pediatric Cardiac Unit and teach doctors how to do these surgeries. Often, several independent programs will get involved. It’s all about maximizing leverage while letting the individual groups operate as they see fit.”
There are a lot of folks pursuing this mission in many different ways. Methods continue to evolve, including efforts to train doctors and seed life-saving technology around the world, as well as other endeavors to improve conditions in terms of nutrition and related family support. The impact, however, is fairly straight forward. Since 1975, over 27,000 children have received life-saving heart operations, with the global network treating over 2,000 children each year.
We have met some of these children. They are amazing, running around with energy they have never known before. Much more striking, is to meet their parents. They are generally exhausted, and we haven’t met one who speaks much English. Despite the language barrier, they communicate some things quite clearly, including the fact that they have just experienced a miracle.
The founding of Gift of Life was simple and profound. While Robbie Donno, a carting company executive from Plandome, is worthy of his own full length feature, this great Long Island story can be summed up succinctly: In 1976, Robbie heard through Rotary that a child in Uganda was in desperate need of heart surgery. He realized that things we can do fairly easily in the United States are almost unheard of in many countries.
He stood up during a meeting of his Manhasset Rotary Club and said, “What If?”
Fellow club members decided to work with him to find out.
Now we know…
Another Life Saving Mission: Cliff’s Own
When we first met Cliff a few years ago, the one thing he wanted to talk about more than Rotary was his daughter’s wedding. He was excited. Unfortunately, the big day had to be postponed when the Rehearsal Dinner concluded with Cliff being struck by a 15-year old Kia.
It was a grim day for the Huntington Rotary Club. Some had visited. The news was terrible. A place was set at the table in honor of their stricken friend. The one person offering optimism was local journalist Danny Schrafel, “Mark my words, Cliff Hammond will survive. I've never met anyone with a spirit like that. He will do this."
Cliff laughs, “Yeah? Did you see the article he wrote? That thing reads like an obituary!”
You can read the article here. It actually reflects the pervading sentiment, including the hope beyond hope, very well.
Cliff shows some impressive x-ray images and then hands over one of his souvenirs: a piece of curved metal with screws at either end that held the wingtips of his pelvis in place.
“At a Gift of Life event some months later, Robbie Donno introduced me as the ‘The Official Rotary Hood Ornament’”. Cliff laughs, “He said it before he even knew what was coming out of his mouth. He tried to apologize. I wouldn’t take it. I wear that title with honor.”
He explains how lucky he was to be built long and lanky, just the way he was, and to be hit by just that type of car, smack in the groin. If he was any shorter, or the car was any taller, the impact would have shattered primary blood vessels in the region, killing him. It was also a stroke of luck that, after flying into the air, he landed smack on his face.
“If you think about it, the face is the head’s crumple zone. If I’d hit on the side or the back, the trauma would have been way too much.”
The event was dramatic enough to merit a brief documentary on the Northwell Health website. There, you can get a grasp of the extent of Cliff’s injuries, his pride in finally being able to walk Heather down the aisle, and a little bit of the humor that he and his daughter share.
“They cut a lot of that out,” laughs Cliff, “We were a little too dark and dirty for them, I think.” He then shares an example or two to emphasize his point. We cringe. “I tell you, though,” he says, becoming more serious, “Our being able to laugh at the worst of the worst was really important. I don’t think enough people understand that. That’s how you survive.”
“It was a long, long road back from the edge,” Cliff recalls, “The day of the accident, November 20th, I was a 6’2” 210lb self-proclaimed Superman. By the time I woke up in the Brain Injury Unit around New Years, the cannibalization starvation due the incredible caloric burn of trauma healing had me down to 150. When I started Physical Therapy, I was basically learning to lift my own arms. 1lb weights were a lot. The legs weren’t much better.”
He goes on to tell the story about how his son, who was on leave from the military, talked the doctors out of amputating his arm. “There was a 1 in 5, or 1 in 6 chance that I’d survive the operation. They said 1 in 4 was too much. My son gave it to the doctors straight, telling them that that was a far better chance than me wanting to survive without the limb. I’d have gotten by, but I’m glad he did that.”
Along the same lines, he remarks, “I’ve still got my own hips. At the time, I was so messed up, they couldn’t risk replacing them. Good news for me. I’m missing some range of motion, but my bones are stronger than ever.”
Cliff will tell you that there are two distinct parts to his ongoing healing. The first is physical. This, he reflects, is the easy part as it’s mostly up to the doctors and the body to get it done. The more important part for Cliff is the second, internal one: maintaining the mental and emotional states required to persevere.
Cliff gives a lot of credit to the doctors for not only doing excellent work themselves, but for helping him get his head straight, “A lot of my confidence was laid down by the professional staff. I don’t know if they were full of s---, but they were adamant that they knew exactly what they were doing, and that if I did my part, I could achieve north of a 90% recovery.”
Whether or not they believed it, Cliff believes their insistence was all “necessary ceremony for healing.” He used it as a tool to leverage his own mental state. A primary philosophy of Cliff’s is that in healing, or in anything you want to achieve, you have to answer one big question: “How bad to you want it?”
“Big Picture, I can say it’s been pretty easy. Day to day, well sometimes you want to slit your throat.” He recalls complaining to the orthopedist who helped him get his shoulder working again. “It was 5 months of pure torture.”
But, he recalls with gratitude that the doctor gave it to him straight, “I love that guy. He said, ‘This is really going to suck. But if you want it, this is what you have to do’”
“So we did it.”
It Takes a Village
Cliff knows that in many ways he was lucky. He will also point out that he spent 30 plus years actively building an infrastructure of relationships in the community. From his penchant for Hawaiian shirts (many emblazoned with Rotary logos) to his way of making every encounter a productive, entertaining affair, Cliff intentionally makes life better. It all helped. Between family and friends, Cliff found himself surrounded by a tremendous support team, “They covered all the bases. I had to nothing to worry about except healing. For everything else that came up, someone stepped up.”
“That makes a huge difference. For those who don’t have it, I see how you can just crash and burn.”
Sometimes that support came in the form of tough love returned, “My kids were raised to meet normal adversity heads up. Come to me with your problem. I’m going to explain that you’ve got this. Here’s a tool or two from my experience. Go do it.”
“’You’ve got this,’ is my tagline. After I got hit, I got to eat those words.” Cliff smiles, “Whenever I was less than idealistic they gave me a swift kick in the…”
He was also given swift support from his friends at Rotary. Soon after his accident an annual mini holiday tree fundraiser was transformed to focus on him. The club raised a heartfelt $5,000 to help with expenses. Other, more personal Rotarian offerings, held even greater significance.
“By the time St. Paddy’s Day rolled around, I was ready for Physical Therapy. At that time, I was transitioning from a walker to a cane,” Cliff remembers. His dear friend, Frank Paul, could only visit in spirit, having passed away in 2011. Frank’s son, Jim, sought out Cliff so he could give him a gift.
“It was a great, great honor to learn to walk again using Frank’s cane. I am also the proud keeper of his Rotary Badge. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
“We don’t do what we do to take it out, and I don’t ask for what I don’t need, but it’s nice to know that the day it’s required, help will be there. If you put it in the right place, it comes right back to you.”
“None of us gets through life alone,” Cliff advises, “You’d best pay it forward while you can.”
Adventures in Healing
“You know,” says Cliff, “We’re dealt whatever hand we’re dealt. It’s how we play the cards that matters. We can either learn from and build on our experiences, or perpetually repeat them. We can choose to make a difference, be a witness, or be a victim. Doing nothing is a choice. For some, that’s ok. Retirement homes are filled with people just waiting to die. Millions of people are waiting for someone else to live for them. You can choose laziness, ignorance, both…or you can make the best of it. Are you going to be grateful for what you do have and really be alive? Or are you going to focus on all the ‘poor me’ and take advantage of all the enabling that life’s got to offer? Success gets down to one question.”
“How bad do you want it?”
Cliff was not necessarily the easiest person to encounter in Physical Therapy.
“I was surrounded by all these other patients. Retirees, mostly, who had slipped and fallen or who just had their hips or knees replaced. What struck me was the personal attitudes of misery. Victimhood. “Poor me.” Or, even worse, bitching about money…I’d listen…” He goes on to share another story:
One lady comes to mind. She was all busted up. Hip. Arm. Constantly complaining. From appearances, she must have been in her early 70s. So I asked her what happened. I found out she had gone to get the paper and slipped on the ice. A neighbor kid who was about 10 years old found her, and then ran and got his mom. They called the ambulance.
I called her out.
I pointed out the piece she’d failed to acknowledge; something very important. See, if that kid hadn’t of found her, she would have laid there and frozen to death, ‘Did you ever thank the kid for saving your life? Did you give that family any time? Maybe bought the kid some legos or ice cream? Anything?’
Well,’ I told her, ‘It’s high time you do that. In fact, I’m willing to bet it’s high time you start appreciating a lot of stuff.’ I advised her that she owed her existence to that family. I also told her to go home and dig out her old yearbook, and take stock of how many people aren’t as lucky as she is to still be alive. I’ll bet north of 30% of the people in that book. I instructed her to go out, buy a Hawaiian shirt, and start smiling.
She thanked me. I wasn’t sure she meant it.
Two weeks later, I met a different person and I got a different kind of thanks. The change was incredible. She had met the family and had a good time. She didn’t have on a Hawaiian shirt, exactly, but she was making the point in her own way, with whatever must have been in her closet.
This kind of thing played out in various forms with various people at least a dozen times. I had something to leverage…They’d always ask my story. I’d tell them about the accident. I’d explain that my insurance covered 20 1-hour sessions for a year and how I had to go 3 times per week for four hours for 18 months. I told you about the torture, right? Once you hear what happened to me, it’s kind of hard to come up with something to complain about.
I tell them that how they’re going to do is all about one question, 'How bad do you want it?'
I tell them that how they’re going to feel is about another, 'How grateful are you for what you’ve got?'"
Paying it Forward
Throughout his healing, Cliff has encountered a lot of doctors and nurses and all sorts of healing professionals. One stood out, “In the last 6-9 months of Physical Therapy, I met this young PT student who was doing her practical applications. I watched her interface with all sorts of patients: old, young, accidents, life…I could see was a natural caregiver. She had this disproportionate love for humanity, and she was smart...”
Cliff encouraged her service with a $500 scholarship, and invited her to join him at the family table at the hero’s night dinner held by the hospital. This is where he finally got to meet and honor all the folks who saved his life.
“My purpose was to introduce her to the right players, help her see the big picture, and start building the infrastructure for when she graduated. It was nice. Turned out the wife of my Physical Therapist was one of her professors.” He smiles.
Cliff is deeply grateful for the support from Rotary. The kind intention from loving friends meant even more than the money. He’s made sure to put it to exceptionally good use.
Says Cliff, “See, I’m recovered. I’m no charity. It meant a lot to me to receive that gift. Now, I’m paying it back. With interest.”
One of the things Cliff realized after his accident was that it wasn’t just the particular way that incident occurred that saved his life – it was also where. After he got out of Southside hospital, Kenneth McMillan, Sr. Director of Development for Northwell Health explained to him the lack of services east of Stony Brook.
“From point of impact, they were able to have me on the table receiving emergency care in less than 15 minutes. I didn’t have 25 or 30 to wait,” explains Cliff, “So basically, if this had happened out past Exit 68? I’d have been road kill.” Cliff then began engaging in serious conversations with development teams at various Northwell hospitals, including Southside and Manhasset, asking “What can I do with my leverage (contacts, story, energy) to improve trauma services?” He also spoke with Wendy Walsh, sitting Rotary governor, as well as some Rotarians involved in hospitals.
“That was an important piece.”
He soon found a way he could help. About a year ago, the Peconic Bay Medical Center (PBMC) announced its intent to become the first licensed Trauma Center on the North Fork. The $60M Critical Care Tower will not only expand the hospital’s capabilities substantially, it will also include a new helipad big enough to accommodate U.S. Coast Guard helicopters. This will expand the facility’s capacity to serve the military and fishing fleet. It will also enable it to get any patient to a Level 1 Trauma Center. An article in the Riverhead News-Review offers some details. Another article from Northwell Health provides further information as it celebrates the July groundbreaking on the project.
For his part, Cliff has paid forward the $5,000 Rotary had given to him, putting it up as seed money for his hospital fundraising endeavor. He is now working ardently to leverage that donation considerably.
“In Rotary, we move mountains. I’m just a small fish in a big pond, but I’ve got a story and I’ve got connections. It’s pretty cool to think what I might be able to do with that.”