Every Christmas is a gift for Hill family after transplant

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By Donald Richie

For the past three years, Christmas has had a special meaning to one Harrison County family.

Christmas to the Hill family - Jimmy ?Killer? Hill, his wife Patty, daughters Christin Hill Barnes and Amy Hill Ballard, son Jim Ed Hill and all his grandchildren get the gift of time every year.

Two years ago, on Dec. 9 and 10, 2005, Killer Hill had a heart transplant at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

He was off the ventilator later that day.

?He was up and doing everything on his own on the 10th,? said Christin.

?I came through the operation A-1, no trouble,? said Killer. ?My new heart took right off and it?s done perfect.?

By New Year?s Eve, Killer was out of the hospital and on his way home.

The road to his second ?heart birthday? a couple of weeks ago has had its share of twists and turns.

Because he is on a cocktail of medicines designed to keep his body from rejecting the heart, Killer?s immune system is not as strong as it should be. A few months after the surgery, Killer fell outside his house. Soon after, he was back in the hospital with a blood infection.

Considering the seriousness of his heart transplant, that was his first real big setback.

The infection damaged nerves all over Killer?s body, leaving him unable to walk or even hold up his head.

?He was down for probably eight months,? said Jim Ed. ?He couldn?t walk.?

He spent time in Cardinal Hill Hospital - and later Harrison Memorial Hospital - basically learning to use his body again. And of course, the kids and grandkids helped keep him in line.

Being immobile also caused him to have a blood clot which caused his leg to swell. Also an effect of the medicines, his clot was made worse by the fact he didn?t get up and around enough after the infection.

Some time later, Killer fought a bout of pneumonia - serious stuff for transplant patients.

But through it all, his new ticker kept ticking.

?The heart?s perfect,? said Patty. ?The surgery went perfect.?

Christin said the first year after a transplant is always the hardest, but experiencing it was more educational than hearing about it.

?You have no idea until you go through it,? she said.

?If I hadn?t got that blood infection, I would have been 90 percent [recovered],? Killer said. ?It knocked me flat.?

The biggest risk to transplant patients is always rejection. Killer has an annual tissue biopsy and every three months he has his blood tested. His rejection level has tested as high as 3.5 on a 4-point scale, but his recent results have been much better.

?I just had one last week and it came back real good,? said Killer.

?It came back a zero - which is perfect,? explained Christin.

Now, he is on the lowest dosage available for his anti-rejection medicines, which he will take for the rest of his life.

He also keeps a daily check on his diabetes, blood pressure, heart rate and his temperature. Any variance in his temperature could indicate infection so that?s of vital importance.

Killer also has to watch out for germs and sick people. That means a lot of hand washing and wearing a mask out in public.

?The grandkids are really good about washing their hands,? said Christin. ?Even if papaw?s already washed his hands, the little ones will bring the hand sanitizer and make him do it again.?

?We have a whole new meaning to the words, ?wash your hands,?? said Amy.

All that aside, Killer and his family realize the journey was worth what came after. Without the transplant, he would likely have only lived a few more days, but he is now two years and counting with his new heart and new life.

?Before he got the heart, he couldn?t hardly do anything,? said Patty.

?He couldn?t hardly take two or three steps,? said Jim Ed.

?The doctor wanted me to stay on a treadmill for 20 minutes and I couldn?t stay there for two,? added Killer.

Jim Ed said his color had turned an ashy, gray. Christin said any time Killer slept in, the family would be scared to check on him - afraid of what they might find.

Now, everything is different.

?We get to do a lot of golfing now,? said Christin.

?I played golf several times this summer and I felt a little better every time,? Killer said. ?I feel good - I?ve picked up a little bit.?

While getting back on the golf course was a big triumph, something else was Killer?s biggest victory.

?When I took my first steps [after his blood infection], when I could stand up that first time - that was the greatest feeling,? Killer said.

This past summer, the family got to do something they hadn?t done in 10 years - go on a family vacation. They spent a week at Barren River Lake in western Kentucky.

?We got to take a pontoon out and go fishing,? said Christin. ?Dad got to drive the boat.?

The promise of more time with his wife, kids and grandkids has made all the struggles worth it to Killer. When asked, he tells anybody he would go through it all again.

?I?d do it in a heartbeat - I had to have it,? he said.

On his first ?heart birthday,? last December, Killer was surprised by a visit from his transplant coordinator, Belinda Conner, and his transplant surgeon, Dr. Philip Camp. Going out of their way for that was the kind of care which was par for the course in Killer?s medical journey.

?They?re different at UK... they?re all about the patients,? said Patty.

?And how your feelings are,? added Christin.

In fact, they all said the health care facilities they?ve used - UK, Cardinal Hill and HMH - all rank high for the level of care demonstrated.

Killer didn?t forget his true Christmas angels though - his family.

?I don?t know what I?d have done if it hadn?t been for them,? he said. ?They took turns coming to see me, sitting with me overnight and everything.?

The family, however, said it really took a village to get Killer through the transplant.

?His family, friends, churches, people - there were a lot of people who just pitched in and helped,? said Amy.

Patty added that there were so many people who helped, it was simply overwhelming. Her message to Harrison County is that the family is grateful and thanks everyone who helped them - in prayer or action - during the last two years.

?We?re thankful for every day,? said Patty.

In all this, their message is clear: Sign the organ donor card. Save a life.

?People just don?t understand organ donation,? said Patty.

?How important it is,? added Christin.

?We didn?t either - until this,? finished Patty.