New lease on life: Hamilton clicking along after heart surgery

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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Russ Hamilton

Russ Hamilton. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The coughing just wouldn’t stop.

After suffering from pneumonia a few years earlier, Russ Hamilton knew he didn’t want to go through that again, so he quickly made an appointment to see the doctor.

He would soon find out, however, that the problem was not with his lungs but with his heart.

Hamilton’s first inkling that something more serious might be happening was the look on Dr. Tim McIntyre’s face when he began listening to Hamilton’s chest on that June day in 2015.

HEART HEALTHY – Russ Hamilton’s wife, Tonya, said it was “terrifying” to watch her husband sleep at night because he was gasping for air prior to his surgery. Both say the procedure to replace a heart valve has greatly improved his health. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“He gets a funny look on his face and he runs out,” the Decatur resident said. “…He comes back with a cart and he hooks me up to an EKG machine and runs a tape. He says, ‘Hang on’ and he faxes it to Dr. (Jason) Finklestein. He comes back in and says ‘You’re in afib.'”

Hamilton didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t sound good. Afib, or atrial fibrillation, is when the heart beats irregularly or too fast.

As his cough continued to worsen, Hamilton saw Dr. Finklestein, a cardiologist in Decatur. He tried medication and cardioversion, a procedure to bring an abnormally fast heart rate back into regular rhythm. His heart rate might temporarily go back to normal, but he would always go back into afib.

Hamilton went to The Heart Hospital in Plano for more tests, and that’s when the problem was discovered.

“His problem is there is no heart valve. His heart valve is just gone,” Hamilton’s wife, Tonya, said the doctor told them.

Hamilton explained that blood was being pushed back into the atrium of his heart, and also into the lining of his lungs. That’s what was causing Hamilton to cough so much.

The official diagnosis was rheumatic valve disease, and it apparently had its roots in a bout of rheumatic fever Hamilton suffered as a child.

“My parents don’t remember it,” Hamilton said. “I never had anything that was diagnosed as rheumatic fever.”

He did suffer quite a bit as a child from tonsillitis, and he believes one of those bouts was actually an undiagnosed case of rheumatic fever. In the years since, Hamilton, 55, said his body has been attacking the heart valve.

“There is a protein on the heart valve that looks like the protein created by that virus, so your white blood cells are trying to kill that virus and they end up attacking your own valve, and it just ate my valve away,” Hamilton explained.

He needed surgery to replace the heart valve.

With his heart not properly pumping blood throughout his body, he was often tired or became out of breath easily. He’d also have trouble remembering things, he said.

Unable to bring down his heart rate, he had trouble sleeping.

“It was like a caffeine rush all the time,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t sleep well. With that cough, I could never relax.”

On Oct. 28 of that year, Dr. Robert Smith at The Heart Hospital performed robotic surgery on Hamilton. After removing what was left of the actual valve, he inserted a new valve that allowed blood to be pumped out but would not allow blood to back up into the heart.

A couple of days after the surgery, Hamilton’s coughing stopped. A little more than a week after the surgery, Hamilton was allowed to return home. He said he immediately felt much better.

After surgery, he went through rehabilitation at Fit-N-Wise for about four months as he worked to regain his strength.

“I was out running three miles within four months (after surgery),” Hamilton said.

Except for the blood thinner medication he will have to take daily for the rest of his life, the only other subtle daily reminder of his ordeal is the almost inaudible clicking sound his new valve makes as his heart pumps. He also goes to the doctor once a year for an EKG and every two years for a stress test.

Hamilton said thanks to the outstanding work of his doctors and nurses, he has a new lease on life.

“I had no options,” he said. “I had maybe a couple more years to live if I hadn’t done anything. It was a real eye-opener.”

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