Don Hill (MD’60): Saving Lives
It was 1971, and Dr. Hill was part of a San Francisco-based team of researchers and visionaries designing new lifesaving devices. As its name implies, the membrane oxygenator protects blood from damage due to its membrane. It was Dr. Hill who completed the first procedure using the device, which is essential in the treatment of pneumonia and lung disease. More than forty years later, he still marvels at that particular moment in time.
“To succeed in an innovation in such a major way – knowing that my patient was the world’s first to survive that procedure – it was like turning science fiction into reality.”
A celebrated heart surgeon, researcher and innovator, Dr. Hill has played a vital role in making the previously unimaginable possible, designing life-saving devices that are implanted in patients with advanced heart failure all over the world.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the exploration of cardiac surgery,’ says Dr. Hill of his lifelong passion. “I am fascinated by the interface between patients and devices. The impact is immediate.”
Even so, the landscape has shifted considerably since a young Don Hill completed his general surgery residency in Halifax in 1964. He then hightailed it to California to pursue a specialty in thoracic surgery at the San Francisco Presbyterian Hospital (now the California Pacific Medical Center). Back then, heart and lung machines had only been around for 10 years and the American artificial heart program under President Lyndon Johnson was in its infancy. Circulatory support systems – essentially artificial devices outside the body used to provide blood and oxygen and give the heart a rest – were rudimentary at best and few patients could tolerate the procedure.
Enter Frank Gerbode, an internationally renowned open heart surgeon and pioneer in heart valve transplantation. It was Gerbode who assembled the San Francisco team that included Dr. Hill, resulting in innovative artificial devices that significantly improved the survival rates among patients with heart and lung disease.
The experience inspired Dr. Hill to start his own medical device company, Thoratec, in 1976 to pursue further advances in the field. That same year, Dr. Hill patented a simple aortic punch that is the industry standard today for by-pass procedures. Then, in 1984, he successfully performed the world’s first temporary artificial heart transplant – a procedure designed for patients waiting for a permanent transplanted heart. That innovation changed the landscape of open heart surgery in a way that resonates to this day.
The thrill of discovery continues to drive Hill, who at 73 and with a young family is experiencing a second life of sorts. “I always have something to be excited about,” he says, “whether it’s watching my eight-year-old boys play hockey and constantly asking questions, or scouring nano-technology, biomaterials and other disciplines looking for clues to solve problems in medicine.”
But the foundation of all his success he attributes to his Dalhousie education. “Through my educational experience at Dal I learned curiosity, the ability to recognize a problem, and the drive to aim higher. That’s where it all began for me.”