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Change of heart

Executive turns his life around after heart bypass surgery.

Article Author: Johnny Woodhouse

Article Date:

photo for Change of heart article
Gil Hicks holds a certificate he received after successfully completing 36 cardiac rehab sessions at Baptist Medical Center South.

Robert “Gil” Hicks has been in the wine distribution business for more than 20 years, and his job entails a lot of travel.

“Before the pandemic, I was on the road 50% of the time,” said Hicks, a Fleming Island resident. “I didn’t always eat right and my blood pressure was in the triple digits on both sides.”

At a wine festival in March 2020, Hicks, 50, experienced shortness of breath and chest pain while hauling cases of wine from his hotel room to his company’s tasting booth.

“It got to the point where I had to stop after every block to catch my breath,” he recalled. “The pain in my chest was intense, but I attributed it to overworking myself.”

Thomas Hilton, MD, a cardiologist with Baptist Heart Specialists, advised Hicks to undergo a heart catheterization, a non-surgical procedure to diagnose and evaluate common heart and blood vessel problems such as chest pain, coronary artery disease (CAD), and leaky or narrowing heart valves.

“Come to find out, three of my coronary arteries were blocked, including one at 85%,” Hicks said.

Bypassing the blockage

CAD is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. It is caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. CAD causes the inside of arteries to narrow over time, which can partially or totally block the blood flow.

Angina or chest pain is the most common symptom of CAD, along with shortness of breath.

To alleviate his symptoms, Hicks needed to undergo coronary bypass surgery, where a cardiothoracic surgeon uses blood vessels taken from another area of the body to bypass the blocked arteries.

Vasant Jayasankar, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon, performed the open-heart procedure at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. While coronary bypass surgery doesn’t cure CAD, it can improve heart function and reduce the risk of dying of the disease.

Medically monitored exercise treatments

One way to strengthen the heart and improve quality of life following a major cardiac procedure is to enroll in a nationally certified cardiac rehab program like the ones at multiple Baptist Health locations. This service features medically monitored exercise treatments, patient education and lifestyle coaching.

“Before my surgery, I was more into weight lifting than cardiovascular exercise,” said Hicks, who attended three months of cardiac rehab at Baptist Medical Center South.

“I went from walking a few blocks in my neighborhood to a few hours in the morning, depending on my work schedule. I also started subscribing to a meditation and mindfulness app as a way to relax without using medicine.”

Hicks also lost more than 20 pounds and created a gym in his garage.

“We addressed all of the risk factors and educated him on how best to improve his heart health, with special emphasis on stress relief,” said Angela Kvies, BS, cardiac/pulmonary rehabilitation coordinator at Baptist South. “By the time he graduated from our program, Gil seemed like a new person. He was exercising more than he ever had and adopted the mindset that his overall health comes first.”

Before his heart surgery, Hicks worked anywhere from 40 to 80 hours a week and rarely used his six weeks of annual vacation. “Now I schedule a vacation every three months,” he said. “I tell everyone that cardiac rehab is worth every bit of the effort because your heart health is paramount.”

If you or a loved one have experienced a cardiac episode, Baptist Rehab has seven adult locations in Northeast Florida that provide a safe, supportive environment to recover at your own pace. To request an appointment for cardiac rehabilitation, call 904.202.4200.

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