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General News

Jamie Dimon’s Health Scare amid the Pandemic Featured in WSJ

December 28, 2020

NEW YORK – JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon suffered a frightening health scare in March of this year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began its first wave in the United States. Greek-American Dimon spoke for the first time to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on December 24 about the tear in his aorta that could have taken his life.

“I knew I might not make it,” he told WSJ.

On March 5 at 4 AM, Dimon awoke concerned about the rising cases of COVID which at the time numbered about 100 and called “his top lieutenants to deliver a message that couldn’t wait: The economy is in trouble,” WSJ reported.

Following the call, Dimon “lay down on the couch to read the morning papers,” WSJ reported, adding that “he felt a rip in his chest. He sat up with a gasp and called his doctor.”

The doctor told Dimon, “Jamie, take a cab, you don’t have time for an ambulance,” WSJ reported.

“Hours later, Mr. Dimon was clinging to life, surgeons perched above his chest repairing a gash in the artery that delivers blood from the heart to the rest of the body,” WSJ reported, adding that “the CEO’s near-death experience came as the U.S. economy was hurtling toward its own crisis,” and “the twin emergencies would test JPMorgan’s foundations even more severely than the 2008 financial crisis.”

“The bank serves half of all U.S. households and 400 of the Fortune 500,” WSJ reported, noting that “for more than a decade, a booming economy lifted JPMorgan’s fortunes,” and “the bank, in turn, supported the economy’s growth, lending to millions of businesses and consumers. By March, the coronavirus was threatening to punch a hole in that system.”

For Dimon, “it was the ultimate test of a career-spanning obsession with what he calls the fortress balance sheet- a capital position so strong that the bank could withstand any crisis,” WSJ reported, adding the questions, “Had he built a fortress that could withstand this onslaught? And would the fortress hold, even without him?”

Dimon “recovered from his near-fatal heart injury, but for a few weeks, as the coronavirus ravaged the economy, the nation’s most famous banker wasn’t at the head of America’s biggest bank,” WSJ reported.

While the economy, too, seems to be recovering, with unemployment having “improved every month since April,” vaccines putting “the pandemic’s end in sight,” and the stock market having “rebounded to set new records,” Dimon, “out of step with some who see those factors fueling a steady recovery, is worried,” WSJ reported, adding that “he thinks the growth is fragile.”

“A nationwide surge in coronavirus infections and new restrictions could lead to more layoffs, depressed spending and a fresh round of small-business failures,” WSJ reported, noting that “the bank’s customer data,” Dimon said, “paint a picture of an uneven recovery. The unemployed are running dangerously low on savings and cutting back on the basics; the wealthy are buying second homes and new cars.”

The passage in Congress of the $900 billion stimulus package, “if ultimately signed into law, will help, but it won’t fix the structural defects that allowed the chasm to open up in the first place,” Dimon told WSJ, adding that “an aggressive policy response” is required and “absent one, he fears, the economy won’t fully recover. And a tepid economy is bad news for JPMorgan.”

Earlier this year Dimon told some staff, “Everything is fubar,” WSJ reported, adding that “Dimon’s 15th year as the CEO was supposed to be a good one.”

JPMorgan “closed out 2019 with $36 billion in profit- eight times its 2004 earnings,” WSJ reported, noting that “its stock hit an all-time high, pushing the value of the shares Mr. Dimon owns above $1 billion for the first time.”

The year began with a great deal of travel. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in late January, while the pandemic was spreading in China, Dimon stood “with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a longtime adviser to the bank,” and “shook hands in a receiving line at a cocktail reception,” WSJ reported, adding that after that, “Dimon went to Washington for another annual gathering of the rich and famous, the Alfalfa Club dinner,” and “then it was a retreat for the bank’s top 200 senior leaders.” Dimon then “went to Miami, where clients of JPMorgan’s private bank for the ultra-rich heard from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle,” WSJ reported, noting that “COVID-19 was still a distant worry; the U.S. had only a handful of confirmed cases.”

Dimon “was feeling under the weather but chalked it up to all the travel,” WSJ reported, adding that “still, to be safe, he skipped the handshakes. When he came down with a fever, he stayed in his hotel room.”

At JPMorgan’s annual investor day on Feb. 25, Dimon was asked if coronavirus would affect the bank’s results, and Dimon replied, “I have this nightmare somehow in Davos all of us who went there got it. And then we all left and spread it. The only good news from that is it might have just killed the elites. So I just don’t know, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not sure it helps to guess,” WSJ reported.

On March 5, Dimon “was supposed to be at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue for the funeral of Jack Welch, the longtime General Electric Co. CEO,” WSJ reported, adding that “instead, he was 18 blocks uptown at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.”

Dimon recalled the details of the morning with clarity and “clutching his chest, he replayed the moment the lining of his aorta burst,” WSJ reported.

He told WSJ, “I felt it, I thought I heard it.”

At the hospital, Dimon’s blood pressure was taken revealing a high top number of 140 in his left arm and a dangerously low 60 in his right, WSJ reported, noting that “half his body wasn’t getting enough blood.”

“A heart surgeon who had once operated on Mr. Dimon’s late father explained that he was suffering from an aortic dissection, a tear in the inner wall of the essential artery that delivers blood throughout the body,” WSJ reported, adding that “Dimon’s injury was to the part of the aorta closest to the heart, the ascending section just before the arch that plunges the artery downward.”

“Left untreated, aortic dissections are typically fatal,” WSJ reported, noting that “because they are thought to be rare- in 2018, dissections killed 9,923 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- doctors often miss them.” Actor John Ritter died due to an aortic dissection in 2003, WSJ reported, pointing out that “his doctors thought it was a heart attack.”

In surgery, the doctor told Dimon that “they would have a brief window to implant a tube and rebuild his aorta” and “at any moment, the whole thing could rupture,” WSJ reported, adding that “if that happened, there would be no way to save him.”

Dimon told his wife, Judy, “to call Stacey Friedman, the bank’s general counsel,” WSJ reported, adding that Friedman “called the bank’s lead director” and “then she called Daniel Pinto, who runs JPMorgan’s corporate and investment bank, and Gordon Smith, the head of its sprawling consumer operations.”

“Together they had risen to become co-presidents and co-chief operating officers, overseeing the bulk of the bank’s day-to-day operations,” WSJ reported, noting that Friedman told them that Dimon “was in surgery” and “they were both on deck.”

“As doctors patched up Dimon during seven hours of surgery, the board of directors held a vote to implement what they called the ‘Jamie got hit by a bus’ plan- the bank’s emergency succession protocol,” WSJ reported.

Dimon “surprised his doctors by waking up,” the evening of his surgery, WSJ reported, adding that “he was supposed to be knocked out for a day or two.”

Dimon “wanted his ventilator removed” as “his wife, his three daughters and two sons-in-law, and his twin brother were all waiting at his bedside,” WSJ reported, adding that “on March 12, a week after his surgery, Dimon was released from the hospital.”

He celebrated his 64th birthday on March 13 when he “joined a call with his top executives, and they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him,” WSJ reported.

The country went into lockdown that week as Dimon recovered at home, continuing to join calls with his top executives and then “doctors cleared him to return to work full-time remotely the first week of April” WSJ reported, noting that “he was warned to heed dizziness and pain,” and he “got to work preparing JPMorgan for a painful recession.”

Dimon “still worries about the future,” WSJ reported, adding that “short-term government actions can’t fix the lasting pain and widening inequality in the economy, he warned.”

He “fears that without fundamental policy changes, this recovery will stall, too,” WSJ reported, noting that “he has been calling for education reform; tax changes that lift the take-home pay for lower- income workers and for training programs so more people can make a living wage; infrastructure spending and litigation reform that would help businesses compete; and tweaks to banking regulation he believes hampers his operations.”

Dimon’s doctors “aren’t sure why his aorta burst,” WSJ reported, noting that “his surgeon chalked it up to a freak accident, and regular checkups have shown no lasting damage.”

Recalling the travel, the hand shaking, the fever he had earlier in the year, and after learning that someone he knew had contracted COVID in February, Dimon wondered if COVID could have had something to do with his aortic dissection, WSJ reported, adding that “an antibody test came back negative, but that’s not unusual for tests taken many months after infection.”

Dimon told WSJ that he “is too busy to think about retiring.”

“We have to be focused on beating this. We have to get out of COVID before anything else,” Dimon concluded, WSJ reported.

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