Helping the Heart of a Champion
Advanced heart failure care gives Jimmie Hill an encore.
photo by Mark McDonald
Jimmie Hill has a flare for picking things up and making them work magic for him. He learned to play bass at age 6 and has since traveled the country as a bass guitarist with more than 50 bands. He competed in football, gymnastics and track in high school and college. He also mastered speed skating and qualified for the Pan-American and Olympic games in track cycling. So when Hill learned a leading-edge ventricular assist device (VAD) would help treat his advanced heart failure, he was ready for the challenge.
A Heart in Decline
Over the course of a few years, Hill began to lose his trademark energy and was diagnosed with heart failure. “I was never one to sit around and take it easy. I kept on with life, but I was getting pretty worn down,” he says. Medication and standard treatments provided some help, but Hill continued to decline. In summer 2015, he was referred to Dr. Andrew Sauer, M.D., advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist at The University of Kansas Health System. 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. Hill’s left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber – was dilated to 9 centimeters, about twice the normal size. His thickened heart was struggling to pump. At more than 360 pounds, Hill weighed too much to be eligible for a transplant. But the heart team had a high-tech answer.
The LVAD Answer
Dr. Sauer and cardiac surgeon Dr. Travis Abicht, M.D., joined the health system’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 the blood to the body’s vital organs. “This is not a mechanical heart,” notes Dr. Sauer. “The LVAD 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 or battery. 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 patients have access to. “Having advanced interventions such as LVADs enhances the quality of life for heart failure patients – both those awaiting a transplant and those who are not able to have a transplant but have very poor heart function,” Dr. Abicht says.
Jimmie Hill and Dr. Travis Abicht, M.D., coin toss captains at Arrowhead Stadium Jan. 15, 2017
Dr. Abicht successfully implanted Hill’s LVAD. It was a routine surgery, with one small twist. Hill asked that the device’s driveline exit his body on the left side instead of the traditional right so it would not get in the way of his bass guitar. Jimmie recovered with his trademark spirit and was discharged in 12 days – a full week sooner than the average LVAD patient.
Encore for Jimmie Hill
Hill can now travel, play his music, exercise and go about daily life. He just needs to keep his device regularly charged and not submerge it in water. As he works on making his second solo album, he is mindful of his destiny yet unwritten. Hill continues to lose weight and exercise with the goal of qualifying for a heart transplant someday. “This is a new chapter for Jimmie,” Dr. Sauer says. “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.”
To learn more about The University of Kansas Health System's heart program, visit kansashealthsystem.com/heart.