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Clifford Sheehan; Harvard track star turned medical pioneer

By Seth Lakso
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2011

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Clifford Sheehan III, whose remarkable athletic ability earned him acclaim on the Harvard University track in the early 1980s and who later became a cardiologist who helped pioneer the development of electrophysiology at the International Heart Institute of Montana, died Wednesday at his home in Missoula, Mont. He was 48. The cause of death was undisclosed.

At Harvard, the Kirkland House resident was well regarded for his place in the Crimson Tide record book and his willingness to put his personal interests aside and run in whatever event would best benefit the team.

“Cliff Sheehan was a remarkable athlete, with some amazing accomplishments during his time at Harvard. Yet, from the alumni I have spoken to since his passing, his achievements on the track pale in comparison to what he achieved off of it,’’ said Jason Saretsky, the current coach of Harvard cross-country and track and field, in a statement to the Globe.

Dr. Sheehan earned All-Ivy League honors seven times and was twice named All-American. He departed Harvard with university records in the mile and the 1,500 and 3,000 meters. He finished fifth in the 3,000 at the Indoor NCAA Championship his junior year, and second in the mile at the Outdoor NCAA Championship his senior season.

In 1984, Dr. Sheehan missed qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the mile by just 1.4 seconds. The following year, he became the first New England collegian to break the 4-minute mile, with a time of 3:59.2.

Dr. Sheehan, born in Orange, N.J., was raised in Westfield, N.J., where he attended Westfield High School. As a senior he went undefeated in cross-country and that spring he won the 1,500 in state championships. His 1980 season is considered one of the greatest by a runner in New Jersey high school history.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in biology in 1986 and attended medical school at Southwestern University in Dallas, where he completed his residency in internal medicine and cardiology.

In 1999, Dr. Sheehan moved to Missoula to practice cardiology at the International Heart Institute of Montana at St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center, where he was a pioneer in the development of electrophysiology, which helps diagnose and treat ailments such as an irregular heartbeat.

A devoted father and spouse, he also found time for bicycling, skiing, woodworking, target shooting, and reading.

Dr. Sheehan leaves his wife, Eileen (Kao), and three children, Claire, Ryan, and Christine, all of Missoula; his parents, Clifford and Felicia Sheehan of Whitefield, N.H.; a sister, Felicia Andrews of Little Silver, N.J., and brother Kevin of Missoula.

Services were scheduled for today at St. Francis Xavier Church in Missoula.