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Veteran Celebrates 30 Years with Transplant Heart

two men smiling

Survivor — Veteran James Hill (Left), who received his new heart 30 years ago, shares a moment with Dr. Szabolcs Szentpetery, the VA surgeon who performed the transplant operation.

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sixty-one-year-old James L. Hill, an Army Veteran, is now one of the longest living heart transplant survivors in the world.

Hill received his new heart 30 years ago, back in 1984, at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va. He was 31 back then and the hospital’s 27th heart transplant patient. The hospital now has more than 300 heart transplant operations to its credit.

“I feel great,” Hill told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter during a January 7 ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his life-saving operation. “I just thank God for the doctors who did the surgery and the nurses who put up with me…

“I’ve been very well taken care of in the heart program here at McGuire,” he added. “And I am very thankful I’m still alive 30 years following my heart operation!”

Dr. Szabolcs Szentpetery, who served in Vietnam, performed Hill’s transplant operation three decades ago. Now 75, he’s still with the McGuire VA.

“We started our heart transplant program here at McGuire in 1980,” Szentpetery said. “It was the first VA heart transplant program in the nation. Our medical team here continues to be on the cutting edge in the treatment of advanced and end-stage heart failure.”

He added: “I have seen patients come in for heart surgery that are so sick they couldn’t remember their name. After treatment, they walk out and live a normal life. Now, that’s rewarding.”

The first human heart transplant ever performed took place in December 1967, in Cape Town, South Africa. The surgery was performed Dr. Christiaan Barnard.

McGuire remains the only in-house VA heart transplant program in the United States.

“We’re also the only VA medical center in the nation to offer the Left Ventricle Assist Device (LVAD) as a bridge to transplant,” explained Dr. Neil Lewis, medical director of the McGuire heart transplant program. “We’ve increased our LVAD activity here in view of the burgeoning epidemic of heart failure in this country.”

The LVAD is essentially a little pump, one end of which gets hooked up to your heart’s left ventricle. The other end gets attached to your aorta. The power pack stays on the outside of your body.

Lewis noted that instead of being used exclusively as a bridge therapy, LVADs are now becoming a destination therapy, which means patients can stay on them permanently. He said LVAD surgery outcomes have improved significantly ever since FDA approved the new generation of continuous flow LVADs in 2008.

“This has allowed our team to provide the sickest patients the opportunity to dramatically improve the state of their health,” he observed. “LVAD has also increased the opportunity for a successful outcome following a transplant.”

To learn more about cardiac care at the Richmond VA Medical Center, visit www.richmond.va.gov.