As a marathon runner and lifelong athlete, Joe Kilby of Apex never gave heart disease much thought. He eats right, isn’t overweight, never smoked.
Being told he needed complicated heart surgery stopped the 50-year-old Apex High School football coach in his tracks.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to me,” says Kilby, whose pride and joy are his three-year-old son and his wife. “When I joke about it, I say, ‘I had my 150,000 mile tune up. Now I can go the distance.’”
Kilby’s journey, from fit, middle-aged guy to recovering heart surgery patient, started in 2012 when he learned he had a heart murmur during a routine physical. More tests found he was born with a malfunctioning aortic valve. Typically the aortic valve has three small flaps to control blood flow to and from the heart; Kilby’s only had two flaps. Eventually, he would need surgery to fix it.
But there was more bad news. A follow-up MRI showed Kilby had an aortic aneurysm. “When I heard that I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but it doesn’t sound good.’”
Kilby was right. A bulging aneurysm can stretch and weaken the artery wall. If the artery wall bursts, it can be fatal.
His cardiologist referred him to the heart surgeons at Duke, where further testing revealed that surgery could wait. Kilby took it easy, but he missed his resistance training. “I always loved the weight room,” he said. Lifting weights could cause his blood pressure to spike. In April 2014, with his doctor’s permission, he started running again. He never felt worse.
“I felt tightness in my chest and labored breathing,” he recalled. He headed back to Duke for more tests. One of his arteries was 70 percent blocked. The waiting time for surgery was up.
G. Chad Hughes, MD, a Duke heart surgeon, performed a bypass to reroute his blood flow around the blockage, replaced Kilby’s valve, and inserted a graft to replace his weakened artery.
This is a condition where research has demonstrated that surgical outcomes are best in very high volume centers like ours,” says Hughes. “He should have a similar life expectancy to the rest of the general population who never suffered this problem."
Nine weeks later, Kilby is back on the field, doing what he loves: coaching high school football. “I come from a coaching family,” he says. “My dad was a high school coach, my brother is a high school coach. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Thinking back, he says the whole experience was surreal. “I’m very thankful to all the doctors who worked on me. I’m not 100 percent yet, but I can coach football. I’m a very happy man.”