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Domenic Cervoni wellbeing
Inset: Domenic Cervoni

07 Jul 2021 / Wellbeing Print

Pay it forward

Domenic Cervoni, vice-president of legal at HSBC North America Inc, speaks to the Gazette about the impact of his wife’s diagnosis with a rare cancer – and the battle he faces each day in managing his own wellbeing.

Domenic Cervoni is a New York lawyer who grew up on Long Island and has spent his entire life there. He’s how you imagine a New York lawyer should be – straight-talking, no BS, with a refreshingly honest approach – and a surprising ‘sense of self’ for someone in their ’30s.

He and his wife Barbie and their two boys, Benjamin (8) and Sebastian (6), live in their Long Island home, not far from his parents and his two siblings. His dad emigrated from Italy to the US at the age of 18 and “is in the construction business”. He and Domenic’s mother “married fairly young”.

Like the clichéd Italian family, Domenic was encouraged to “do well in school, be respectful and stay out of trouble”. And that’s pretty much where the clichés end.

The first in his family to go to college, he attended a university in Maryland for a semester, where he met his wife to be. He then transferred to Hofstra University in Long Island. “I was a history major in college; I like to read and write, but I didn’t want to become a professor, so I thought, well I guess I’ll go to law school – it seemed like a stable career.”

He attended law school in New York City and was fortunate enough, in 2007, to get a job at the international law firm Mayer Brown, where he worked on the litigation team in the New York city office for over six years.

He was then seconded to HSBC Bank – an opportunity he actively sought. The six-month secondment turned into 12 months, then 18 and, finally, full-time employment.

He thoroughly enjoyed the experience of jumping from private practice to working in-house. “You can never really appreciate the inner workings of a massive organisation unless you’re in the building,” he says.

“It’s an invaluable experience to meet people internally and see how everything works. You hear about the corporate matrix – that’s real!” 

Being an in-house counsel meant liaising with both external counsel and legal colleagues in HSBC.

Among other things, he developed the important skill of communicating legal concepts and arguments to non-lawyer businesspeople, whether in the compliance, communications or risk departments, in an easily digestible way. “That was something of a challenge initially – but an invaluable skill to have,” he says.

Domenic remains an integral member of the bank’s litigation and regulatory enforcement group as vice-president (legal) of HSBC North America Holdings Inc.

Blast from the past

Not long after he started his secondment at HSBC, Domenic and Barbie were married, had the two boys, and bought a house. Life was good – but that didn’t last. By the end of 2015, the past had caught up with Barbie – and, by extension, with Domenic and the rest of the family.

Back in 2008, his wife had been diagnosed with a very rare cancer. “We were, I don’t know, 27 or 28 years old at the time when I was a first-year lawyer at Mayer Brown. Barbie was in the process of obtaining her master’s.”

The diagnosis meant surgery and radiation treatment. A clean bill of health followed for eight years – until the end of 2015, when she started to get sick once again. In February 2016, she underwent surgery to remove very rare thymoma cancer – cancer of the thymus gland.

Despite invasive surgery to remove the cancer, she remained sick, with no obvious reasons why. After a further procedure and various tests and different medicines, there was still no improvement. She continued losing weight, couldn’t eat, and suffered muscle twitching and insomnia.

“At the time, our kids were aged about three and one,” Domenic says, “and so it was a very difficult situation to watch your significant other’s body deteriorate. Then we transferred her care to another hospital – Memorial Sloan Kettering – which I call the miracle factory.

Within a week, they were able to diagnose a very rare autoimmune disease, which had been triggered by the cancer and was causing the underlying symptoms.

“They switched treatments and, eventually, in late summer 2016, she started improving. She still has cancer, so she lives with it, and she still has this autoimmune disease, which doesn’t go away – it’s just managed.

"Unfortunately, stress is a big trigger, and then when you have young kids at home, good luck, right? So it’s a lifelong journey we’ve embarked on. If you met her today and I didn’t tell you any of this, you would never know that she had any of these problems.”

Not proud

So how did he cope with holding down a very responsible position, workwise, while looking after two active boys?

“Yeah, it was hard. I am not proud of how I reacted and responded many times, just to be blunt about it. I certainly failed as a husband, as a dad throughout that process. There were many times where I was angry and frustrated and scared, and just didn’t know what to make of all of it.

“It’s very hard for us ‘type A’ lawyers – the perfectionist personality type – to have a significant other be as ill as she was, and you can’t do anything about it, right? And for a while I struggled with that, and took it out on the wrong people. I felt like there was no control – I couldn’t rid her body of tumours, I couldn’t make her feel better, I couldn’t make her sleep, I couldn’t make her not be in pain – and that was hard.

“But then I started thinking about all the things I could do, so I began focusing my energy on those. I started inviting her friends to come over to just hang out with her. I took care of our finances, and transferred her medical records from hospital A to hospital B.”

What was the changing point?

“I have a vivid recollection of sitting in my car in the driveway. I had one of those moments when I realised that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing because it wasn’t working. There were things I could do, so the object was to try to focus my energy on those, which helped.”

I’m still standing

Barbie continues to live with chronic illness, but she’s otherwise healthy. “I know that can sound confusing to a lot of people, but they’re not mutually exclusive. My wife is a perfect example of this – you can live with illness, but lead a healthy life.”

It’s an interesting point. There are lots of people managing personal or family illnesses in different ways. It’s a significant part of their lives of which their work colleagues might not even be aware.

Listening to Domenic, you get the sense that there’s a lot that remains unspoken. There’s pain, there’s hurt – possibly even fear. But there’s plenty of hope, too.

And it was that hope that inspired him to write a book, From Tragedy to Triumph, about his family’s experience. (It’s subtitled ‘How my wife’s courageous battle with rare cancer has motivated me to live a better life filled with passion, empathy, and gratitude’.)

He says that writing proved therapeutic for him – and cathartic. “I had a lot of mixed feelings about all the stuff that had happened. I was angry, I was sad, I was frustrated, I was just so many mixed emotions – and putting things on paper helped me process all that information.

“It was painfully apparent to me how important our overall health is. I had watched my wife’s body fail her, and how difficult that made life. Like ordinary experiences – getting up, sitting down, eating, changing a diaper, going for a walk, sleeping. Things we do every day, without even thinking about it – and she couldn’t do any of those things.”

So, how has the experience changed him?

“The short answer is ‘perspective’ and a recognition of what’s truly important in life – and health is paramount. So I started exercising, and I recognised that taking care of myself first helps me take care of everything else.”

Mixed up

“I think a lot of times, especially in the legal profession, our priorities get mixed up a little bit, and there’s such a heavy emphasis on the work that everything else becomes secondary, including family and friends and your overall wellbeing. We think ‘I don’t need to exercise, I don’t need to eat well, I don’t need to meditate’, or do whatever.

“I could just work, work, work and I’ll be fine. And maybe you can for a period of time. In my experience, you burn out eventually. When I shifted my priorities to my own wellbeing – then my family’s, and then my work – not only was I happier and feeling more fulfilled, but I became a better attorney. I became a better professional.

“And that’s one of the things that I’m trying to impress upon people when speaking about mental health and wellbeing – it shouldn’t be some afterthought, especially the mental component of it.

“But not everybody believes that, if I check in and take care of myself mentally, whatever that means for you (maybe it’s walking the dog, reading a book, 20 minutes of quiet time), it will make you feel better and have an impact on your life, on how you approach the day and its challenges. There’s a quote from the writer Eleanor Brownn that I love, which says that ‘self-care is not selfish, you cannot serve from an empty vessel’.”

Advice to the C-suite

What advice would he give to employers about how they can best support their employees in tough times?

“Have empathy for what other people are going through in their lives, because there is something bigger than the job – and it’s life, it’s health, it’s family. And so, even if you don’t necessarily believe that, have empathy for those who do. Even now, we’re learning from the pandemic about the importance of flexibility, and how that has a very positive influence on people.

“We have also learned from this pandemic that, if you have the right people, they’re going to do the job right. They might need to be allowed to take a small break during the day; they might need to go to a doctor’s appointment, but they’re going to get the work done, and it’s going to be high-quality work. And so, be empathetic with your employees who are suffering, provide flexibility, and keep an open mind – no judgment. Something we seem to be getting right at HSBC.”

Wellbeing v Bottom Line

What do you have to say about the ‘suits’ who look on staff wellbeing as being great for the bottom line? Is it right that the focus is on the bottom line rather than, first and foremost, on the mental and physical wellbeing of your staff?

“The short answer is that I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I would like to think that prioritising your people's wellbeing is the right thing to do, and that should be enough, but, practically speaking, sometimes it’s not. But like I said, the two are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it is not ‘either focus on people’s wellbeing’ or ‘improve the bottom line’.

“They’re actually connected, and the research suggests that, if you are taking care of your people and they are making healthier life choices – physical, emotional, mental – they’ll be better at their jobs. They’ll be more productive, they’ll be happier, the work product will be better, there’ll be less burnout, less attrition and less turnover.

“I am encouraged by some of the progress I’m seeing, at least in the United States. Speaking to law firms, and other in-house lawyers, there seems to be a more intense focus on some of these things, and so that’s encouraging. There’s a long way to go. We’re not there yet, and I don’t think we will be for a while, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start.”

From Tragedy to Triumph is available to borrow through the Law Society library.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can find support through LegalMind, an independent and confidential mental-health support available to solicitors and their dependants, 24 hours a day; tel: 1800 81 41 77. See www.lawsociety.ie/legalmind.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott is the Editor of the Law Society Gazette