Walking to beat heart disease

BLOOMINGTON — Jerry Hillhouse walked for the next generation.

“My dad wanted every generation to benefit from advances in medicine, treatments and therapies,” said his daughter, Tammy Pistole of Bloomington.

“Research is so important in helping those with heart disease to live longer,” said his wife, Mary Hillhouse. “Research has led to better medications and surgical procedures. That was very important to him.”

Hillhouse also was a charter member of Mended Hearts Chapter 250 and for years was a volunteer Mended Hearts’ visitor, meeting with people about to have open-heart surgery, answering their questions and reassuring them as a heart disease survivor who experienced open-heart surgery.

Hillhouse died of a heart attack on July 8 at age 83 — 38 years after his first heart attack and open-heart surgery, also known as coronary artery bypass grafting.

While his death was sudden and unexpected, his family is doing on Sunday what Hillhouse would have been doing if not for his untimely death — participating in Heart Walk.

“It meant so much to Jerry so we wanted to honor him this year,” said Mary Hillhouse, 79.

“He would be proud that we are continuing to fight that fight,” Pistole said.

“Jerry was an integral part of the walk for many years,” said Carrie Skogsberg, communications director for the American Heart Association Midwest Affiliate. “He was a (heart disease) survivor for 38 years who was out there and involved for so many years.”

Skogsberg hopes people come to Heart Walk, which begins 2 p.m. Sunday at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium, to walk in memory of Hillhouse and others who have died of heart disease and to honor survivors.

“Heart disease affects many of us,” Skogsberg said. “It is the leading cause of death in McLean County and in the nation. The more people spreading awareness, the better.”

Jerry and Mary Hillhouse moved to the Bloomington-Normal area in 1957 when he was hired by State Farm as an actuary. The Hillhouses raised three children — Debbie Zalucha, 59; Tammy Pistole, 57; and Mark Hillhouse, 53, and also have eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In September 1979, at age 45, Jerry Hillhouse had a heart attack. Three arteries were blocked so he had bypass surgery in which healthy arteries were attached to his blocked arteries to restore blood flow to his heart.

He already was physically active and an avid golfer and his family had a healthful diet, Mary Hillhouse said. But, after his heart surgery, he began walking and riding his bike more and the family moved to a heart healthy diet, meaning less sodium and sugar and more fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.

Because Hillhouse had a heart attack at age 45 and his mother died of a heart attack at age 55, the three Hillhouse children underwent testing. All three were diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition in which the liver can’t effectively recycle and regulate cholesterol, resulting in extremely high levels of cholesterol that can’t be managed by diet and exercise alone.

That inherited disease can lead to heart disease.

“I’ve been on cholesterol-reduction medicine since then,” Pistole said. “In addition, I watch my diet and I exercise. It’s working. So far, I haven’t had a major (heart) event.”

In recent years, some older Hillhouse grandchildren also have been diagnosed with the condition.

Over the years, Hillhouse’s three arteries became clogged again. But, thanks to advances in treatment, he didn’t need another open-heart surgery. Instead, doctors performed a less invasive coronary angioplasty, in which an artery is reopened and kept open by a stent (a small, mesh tube), allowing blood to flow to the heart again.

“One of the main reasons my dad did what he did (as a Heart Walk) volunteer was to push advances in medicine and keep the word out (about heart disease),’ Pistole said. “He did it for our generation and for the next generation.”

In 1994, he and Mary were among charter members of Mended Hearts Chapter 250, recalled another charter member, Marcia Todd of Bloomington.

“At that time, people were having a lot of bypass surgeries and they and their families didn’t know what to expect,” Todd said. Heart disease survivors who had bypass surgery, including Hillhouse, would meet with willing patients and their family members to answer their questions regarding the procedure and recuperation.

“Jerry was friendly and social and liked to laugh but he took his work with Mended Hearts seriously,” Todd said. “He was dedicated to Mended Hearts. He wanted to help. He wanted people to know that having bypass surgery was not the end of the world. His heart was in it, so people listened to him.”

“He was pleased with the reactions he got from the patients,” Mary Hillhouse said. “He felt it was a worthwhile thing to do.”

The chapter disbanded three years ago because fewer people were having bypass surgery. “Today, it’s more medications and stents and fewer bypasses,” Todd said.

Also in the 1990s, Hillhouse got involved in the McLean County Heart Walk, drawn to the heart association mission to invest in research, programs and services to combat heart disease.

He was the event’s top fundraising walker nearly every year from 1998 to 2016.

“Jerry was good at getting pledges and he and Mary walked, too,” Todd said.

“He connected the mission with the fundraising” and raised an average of $3,000 a year, Skogsberg said.

Pistole said of her father: “He was kind-hearted, smart and dedicated to his family, with a good sense of humor. But he was an actuary. He liked things to be done the right way.”

“He was proud of it (his fundraising) but thankful that so many people contributed and helped with the cause,” Pitstole said. “His intention was to help people.”

Consistent with that intention, Mary Hillhouse and Pistole will represent the family at Sunday’s Heart Walk. They will thank people for their support and will accept, on Jerry’s behalf, a posthumous honor from the heart association.

“Heart disease impacts the entire family,” Mary Hillhouse said. “That’s why Jerry was so involved with Heart Walk. He did it for his family and other families.”

Pistole said, “It was important to him that his children and grandchildren rise above heart disease. He would be proud that we are continuing to fight that fight.”

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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