September 20, 2023

Ultramarathoner back on track after cardiac surgery

Fit and focused, an Oregon father and runner rebounds after an aortic valve replacement procedure by the same surgeon who treated his mother.

One year after an aortic valve replacement, Ben Hildner completed a 50-mile ultramarathon in 11 hours, 31 minutes.)

In August 2021, Ben Hildner went out for a 4-mile run — no big deal. He’d run a 52-mile ultramarathon in June. He was as fit as any runner could hope to be.

But he was only one block into a steep run up Mount Tabor in southeast Portland, Oregon, when without warning his vision got blurry, and his body went numb. Thinking he was going to pass out, he took a seat on the curb for a minute or 2. He tapped 9-1-1 on his phone, but started feeling better, and finished his run.

But when it happened again 3 days later, he knew he was in trouble. After calling Kaiser Permanente, he was urged to visit the emergency department immediately.

A malfunctioning heart valve

The bad news: One of Hildner’s aortic valves no longer opened properly, which forced his heart to work harder to push blood through. His cardiologist told him that if he didn’t have an aortic valve replacement operation, he’d be dead within 2 years. It was a dire prognosis and, as a recently divorced father of 2 sons, Hildner was terrified.

The good news: The ailment is hereditary, and his surgeon would be Yong Shin, MD, the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center, who had performed the same procedure 6 years before on Hildner’s late mom, Anita. The passion, expertise, and talent of Dr. Shin and the entire team continues to drive national recognition for the Oregon-based cardiac program.

“It was an enormous relief when I heard that he was going to be my surgeon,” Hildner said. “Because I was like, I know that guy. He's brilliant. He did amazing work with my mom.”

In October 2021, about 6 weeks after Hildner had seen his cardiologist, Dr. Shin removed the malfunctioning valve and replaced it with an artificial device during open heart surgery.

Kaiser Permanente member Ben Hildner

Ben Hildner begins his road to rehab after open heart surgery at Sunnyside Medical Center.

Successful surgery for both son and mother

For Dr. Shin, this is a routine procedure. But performing the same surgery on a mother and then her son is not routine at all.

“When a patient tells you that you operated on their mom or their dad, it’s very humbling,” Dr. Shin said. “I feel blessed to be able to help.”

Once Hildner got home, he started walking, slowly building up his stamina. He did so in his pajamas, not caring a bit what people thought.

“You know, nobody can judge me,” he said. “I'm just going to go outside in my pajamas every day for as long a walk as I can tolerate. It took maybe 2 weeks before I could walk to the top of Mount Tabor.”

His recovery is now complete. In October 2022, he ran a 50-mile ultramarathon in 11 hours, 31 minutes — an emphatic and emotional return to one of the great passions of his life.

“At one point in my run I broke down crying,” he said. “There was no one around, and I just broke down. I was in the middle of Montana, one week away from the anniversary of my replacement, and it just hit me.”

“I am very, very grateful to Dr. Shin and the care team.”

But, Dr. Shin said, the admiration and gratitude go both ways.

"I'm so glad that Ben is doing well. One of the greatest gifts that we get as physicians is to know that your patient is doing well. And to have someone like Ben, you know, who sends me cards or thank you notes saying, 'Hey, I just ran this ultra-marathon.' ... it's just amazing."