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Helping the Heart of a Champion

Advanced heart failure care gives Jimmie Hill an encore

Jimmie HillJimmie Hill has a flare for picking things up and making them work magic for him.

The 59-year-old learned to play bass in the school orchestra at age 6 and has since traveled the country as a bass guitarist with more than 50 bands. Despite battling chronic asthma, he took to one sport after another, competing in football, gymnastics and track in high school and college. He also mastered speed skating and learned track cycling so well that he qualified for the Pan-American Games and the Olympics.

So when cardiologists at The University of Kansas Hospital recommended Hill receive a leading-edge treatment for his advanced heart failure, he was ready for the challenge.

A heart in decline

Over the past few years, Hill began to lose his trademark energy. Physicians in his then hometown of Austin, Texas, diagnosed him with heart failure, but he found little relief.

"I was never one to sit around and take it easy. I pretty much just kept on with life, but I was getting pretty worn down," he says.

When he came to stay with his sister in Kansas City, he was so tired and short of breath that she insisted he see Tahira Zufer, MD, a friend and family medicine physician at The University of Kansas Hospital. Dr. Zufer sent him to Ashley Simmons, MD. Medication and standard heart failure treatments provided some help, but Hill continued to decline.

In the summer of 2015, Dr. Simmons referred Hill to Andrew Sauer, MD, advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist at
The University of Kansas Hospital. At that point, Hill could not walk across the parking lot without stopping to catch his breath. He was retaining fluid, experiencing arrhythmias and developing a serious kidney complication known as cardiorenal syndrome.

"I had gotten to the point where I was struggling just to breathe, and all I wanted to do was sleep," he says.

Hill's left ventricle – the heart's main pumping chamber – was dilated to 9 cm, about twice the normal size. His thickened heart was struggling to pump. At more than 360 pounds, he weighed too much to be eligible for a transplant. But the heart team had a high-tech solution.

The LVAD answer

Dr. Sauer and cardiac surgeon Travis Abicht, MD, joined the hospital's heart failure and heart transplant program in 2015. Their expertise in treating advanced heart failure means patients like Hill have more options. 

In Hill's case, Dr. Sauer recommended a left ventricular assist device (LVAD).

This implantable device pulls blood out of the heart's left ventricle into a mechanical pump, which then sends the blood back to the aorta. This main artery carries blood to the body's vital organs.

"This is not a mechanical heart," says Dr. Sauer. "The LVAD simply assists the heart in performing its vital functions and restores quality of life for the patient."

The LVAD needs a power supply, so patients have a cord, or driveline, connecting their LVAD to a small, wearable control unit/battery.

The device intrigued Hill. So did the prospect of being the hospital's first LVAD patient. As the heart team enhances its advanced heart failure care and builds its heart transplant program, LVADs are an essential part of the comprehensive care available to patients.

"When we get to this end of the spectrum in heart failure care, having advanced interventions such as LVADs enhances the quality of life for patients – both those awaiting a transplant and those who are not able to have a transplant but have very poor heart function," says Dr. Abicht. "We are growing our care in such a way that we will have all the tools at our disposal to help patients."

Advanced surgery

Two days before Hill's LVAD procedure, the magnitude of open heart surgery hit home.

"I almost backed out. If not for some of the things I've been through in my life, I could not have seen past the surgery," he says.

Hill's surgery was successful, but included one small twist: Rather than the driveline exiting the right side of his body, as it traditionally does, Hill asked that his driveline exit on the left side so it would not get in the way of his bass guitar.

Hill recovered with his trademark spirit and was discharged in 12 days – a full week sooner than the average LVAD patient.

New lease on life

Life with an LVAD means renewed energy for Hill, along with some lifestyle adaptations, noted Nancy Richards, RN. Richards and Melanie Anderson, RN, serve as the hospital's ventricular assist device coordinators.

"Patients really need a family member, friend or caregiver to help support them, particularly for those first 12 weeks," Richards says. "It is open heart surgery, and patients require extensive care."

Hill's friend Carol Curiale has been by his side every step of the way.

"She has been a strong support for me," he says. "She understood what we were up against and really kept me grounded."

Hill can travel, play his music, exercise and go about daily life. He just needs to keep his device regularly charged and avoid submerging it in water.

Encore for Jimmie Hill

As Hill works on making his second solo album, he is also mindful of his destiny yet unwritten.

Hill's LVAD is classified as a "destination" device since he is not currently eligible for a transplant. He continues to lose weight and exercise with the goal of earning a "bridge to transplant" classification, which would qualify him for a heart transplant someday.

"This is a new chapter for Jimmie," says Dr. Sauer. "He needed to be able to breathe, walk and have quality of life to be eligible for a transplant down the line. With his LVAD, he has gained these things."