Swift action helps former OU, professional athlete survive sudden, life-threatening tear above heart

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NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – Once a professional athlete and member of a legendary OU baseball team, Rich Hills had always been healthy.

But now in his mid-40s, former Hills is recovering from a heart scare that nearly took his life.

He suffered an aortic dissection – something doctors say typically kills patients before they get to surgery.

Rich Hills is a part of prestigious sports history at OU.

With three appearances in the College World Series, a National Championship in 1994 and being drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1995, that hard work paid off for Hills.

He went on to spend five-and-a-half years in the Minor Leagues.

“Professional baseball is a grind,” Hills said. “It’s every day, not every-other-day or every few days.”

Now, 46 years old, Hills still hasn’t stopped working. He’s forever an athlete, hitting the gym regularly.

But in January, during a typical bench press, something wasn’t right.

“Felt a pop in my chest and wasn’t sure; got lightheaded at first and wasn’t sure what was going on,” Hills said. 

Hills called his wife, Kim, who just so happens to be a nurse with the Norman Regional Health System.

“He never complains – never complains – and I knew something was wrong,” she said. 

Hills was rushed to the emergency room where an eagle-eyed team quickly realized he had an aortic dissection – a typically fatal tear above the heart.

“It can be misdiagnosed pretty easily and the emergency room crew in this case was outstanding,” said Hills’ surgeon, Dr. Kyle Toal. 

Toal says it’s like a tear inside a two-layer hose. Eventually, the second layer tears, and it’s one of the leading causes of sudden death.

But Rich had something Toal had never seen before – his tear stretched to his left main coronary, which provides about 75 percent of the heart’s blood supply.

“I try to describe it as if you took a tiny hand grenade and one inch above your aortic valve, just an inch above your heart and pulled the pin on it because that’s what looks like when you get in there,” said Toal. “It looks like an explosion has occurred right above the heart.”

About an hour after walking into the E.R., Hills was prepared for a risky surgery.

Kim started calling friends and family.

“Making sure he talked to people, because I honestly didn’t think he would be out,” she said.

They said goodbye and Rich was wheeled off to the O.R.

Eleven long hours later, he made it out alive.

“I was in tears,” Kim said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Dr. Toal says there’s about 50-100 cases of aortic dissections seen per year in the Oklahoma City metro area heart hospitals.

“But every one of them is different,” he said. 

Toal says symptoms differ case-by-case, but typically, it’s a severe pain that starts in the chest and goes through the shoulder blades.

Every hour it gets worse and time is precious.

“The bulk of people don’t survive the initial event,” Toal said. “The minority that do survive usually have anywhere from a few hours up to 48 hours before they succumb to it.”

Hills, who now runs a baseball academy, is anxious to get back in full swing, sharing his love for the sport that’s given him so much joy.

“I just now started getting back to doing that – being able to throw and swing the bat a little bit,” Rich Hills said. 

The veteran athlete is now urging others to be proactive and get a noninvasive heart scan as they get older.

The inexpensive scan, which takes about 10 minutes, measures calcium content in your coronary arteries. Hills’ doctor says that scan would’ve detected the problem.

Norman Regional Hospital says the scans are 10 times better at predicting coronary episodes than cholesterol screenings.

“I never felt anything or was never short of breath, never had chest pains my whole life, so it was a rude awakening, for sure,” Hills said. 

High blood pressure can make you more susceptible to this type of tear.

For just $35 you can get a heart scan at Norman Regional Health System.

Dr. Toal says that scan likely would have alerted Hills to the potential problem.

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