"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Dr. John Gill’s change of heart

By on September 27, 2017 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Jim BrownBy Jim Brown, M.D.

Dr. John Gill underwent a successful heart transplant on April 20 at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, California.

John has been a friend and colleague ever since he joined the then Wenatchee Valley Clinic in 1978 as a general internist. He is what many call a “doctor’s doctor.”

Many of his colleagues at the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center chose him to be their primary physician because of his diagnostic skills, his empathy and the care he gave to his patients. I know his patients all loved him, for good reason. He listened and he cared.

While skiing in February 2012, he felt that his legs were wobbly, and he had trouble walking and had shortness of breath. He went to his cardiologist and found that his electrocardiogram was abnormal. His heart rate fell to 30 beats per minute at times.

This led to further tests, including a cardiac angiogram (normal) and a cardiac MRI (normal). He was sent to the University of Washington where a pacemaker was installed in March 2012.

In November 2013, an implanted defibrillator was installed. His cardiologists there suspected he might have sarcoidosis of the heart, a rare disease. About 95 percent of the time sarcoidosis involves the lungs. John had no sign of that or of it in any other organs.

In January 2014 he had a PET scan (positron emission tomography) that made the diagnosis of sarcoidosis of the heart.

Sarcoidosis is characterized by the buildup of immune system cells forming small clusters of cells called granulomas, a type of inflammation.

John and Dianna Gill: “A personal miracle.”

John continued working even though he had increasing fatigue as well as shortness of breath. When walking from his car in the clinic parking lot to the clinic building, he had to stop several times due to shortness of breath. He retired on April 1, 2015.

On Sept. 14, 2016 his defibrillator went off twice shocking his heart rhythm to normal. John said having the defibrillator implanted saved his life twice.

He flew to Seattle and underwent a heart transplant evaluation at the UW. The heart transplant team discussed the fact that since John is a big man he will need a “big” heart.

By Christmas 2016 the UW team didn’t think it was likely they would get the heart that John needed. They suggested he go to Cedar-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles to register for their heart transplant program, as finding a donor heart there seemed more likely than in Seattle.

Cedars-Sinai is one of the most active heart transplant centers in the world and definitely in the United States. Since they started their program in 1988, they did over 1,000 transplants through 2015. (John says that number now exceeds 1,200).

At Cedars-Sinai he spent one month in the hospital undergoing further testing including psychological evaluation. He was accepted onto their transplant list.

There is a rating system for heart transplant candidates: 2, 1-B and 1-A. If rated a 2 it would be unlikely for that patient to get a transplant. 1-B is possible but a 1-A rating was needed to be a likely recipient. John was rated 1-A.

When he was still in the hospital, John and his wife, Dianna, got a call that they had a possible heart for John. Dianna and their friends Carla Gorham and Dr. Jay Gorham, his Wenatchee cardiologist, were waiting in his sixth floor hospital room when they saw a helicopter landing below at 10:30 p.m. Dianna thought, “that’s John’s heart.”

Thirty minutes later John was wheeled into the operating room. Dianna was told if he came back to his hospital room that meant he didn’t have the transplant. At 2 a.m. the cardiac surgeon came out and told her that John had a new heart and everything went well. (As I write this even now I have tears of joy for both of them).

John left the hospital 10 days later. He had to stay in the Los Angels area for three months getting checked three times a week and undergoing further testing.

I asked him about the heart donor. All he knows is that the heart came from a 49-year-old female. After one year John can write a letter to the donor’s family to thank them for their generous gift of life to him and hoping they will agree to meet him in person.

John says he now feels great. After surgery he lost 35 pounds of weight in 12 days, which was primarily the fluid backing up from his chronic heart failure.

He now walks one hour twice a day with Dianna. He told me he never had any pain from the surgery and never took any pain medication. “I feel great and have more energy than I have had in years.”

He said this whole experience has deepened his faith in God and in prayer. He told me, “Not many people experience a personal miracle. I have, and I thank God for it. “

Recently John was offered a new part time job with Confluence Health. He will now be one of four physicians on their Hospice team. I can’t think of a better physician or better person to be counseling and giving support to hospice patients.

There is probably no greater gift anyone could give to another than the gift of life.

In the event of a tragic incident where someone has permanent brain death but the other organs can still be successfully transplanted into another, there is no better way to honor the deceased loved one than to donate their organs to save the life of someone else, even if it is a complete stranger.

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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