RICHMOND, Va. — James L. Hill was 31 when he had a heart transplant at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in January 1984, the hospital’s 27th heart transplant patient at the time.
At age 61, Hill, of Richmond, recently celebrated 30 years of living with a transplanted heart, making him one of the longest-living heart transplant survivors in the United States.
“I feel great,” Hill said at a program at McGuire recognizing him and marking 33 years the veterans hospital has had a heart transplant program.
“I just thank God for the doctors who did the surgery and the nurses who put up with me and my wife,” said Hill.
Hill’s wife, Vickie, and their children and grandchildren were with them at the program.
The first human heart transplant in the world was done in December 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa.
In May 1968, Dr. Richard R. Lower of the Medical College of Virginia did the first human heart transplant in Virginia.
Dr. Szabolcs Szentpetery, who did Hill’s surgery and who started the heart transplant program at McGuire, trained with Lower.
“It was one of those things that was love at first sight,” Szentpetery said, referring to getting into transplant medicine after serving in Vietnam.
“You kind of get really involved with the transplant, and transplant became your life in a way,” said Szentpetery, 75, who is the Richard R. Lower Professor of Surgery at VCU and who is still on the McGuire staff. The McGuire and VCU heart transplant programs are affiliated.
“There was a year when we did 50 transplants,” Szentpetery said. “It meant a lot of nights spent on the stretcher waiting for the hearts.”
Szentpetery said the McGuire program was involved with one of the first transplants in which the donor heart was retrieved from miles away instead of from a local donor.
“We did the first long-distance heart transplant where the heart was harvested at a different hospital,” he said. “We had to fly to Indianapolis and bring the heart back.”
In the early days of heart transplants, patients sometimes lived just a few days. Outcomes improved over time but shot up dramatically after cyclosporine became available in the 1980s to prevent organ rejection in heart transplant patients.
But “30 years is really amazing,” Szentpetery said, adding that another MCV patient of his is approaching 30 years with a heart-lung transplant.
Dr. Neil Lewis, medical director of the McGuire heart transplant program, said McGuire has transplanted more than 300 patients during the heart program’s history, the most recent case just recently.
One relatively newly transplanted patient, Rick Hawkins, 54, was at McGuire last Tuesday for a follow-up visit. Hawkins, who lives in Arkansas, was transplanted in August 2011. His heart was damaged more than 20 years ago when he accidently touched electrical power lines while working on a roof.
“Doctors told me my heart would last 20 years. It lasted 23,” Hawkins said. He waited more than two years for a donor heart, surviving with a mechanical heart pump called a left ventricular assist device.
“The heart pump was keeping me alive, but I didn’t have good quality of life,” he said. “I couldn’t walk a quarter of a block.”
He’s now able to walk six to 12 miles a day, he said, and is shooting for at least 30 years with his new heart, he said. He has a 10-year-old he wants to see grow up.
“It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on another person, but I am thankful God has showed me how to go through it,” he said. “I am blessed to be alive.”