LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - When WAVE 3 Chief Meteorologist Tom Wills retired in July 2009, his only goal was to spend more time with his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. But those plans came to a screeching halt early this year when a medical scare nearly took his life.
For 40 years, Tom brought his own brand of sunshine to the Ohio Valley. He remains one of local TV's most popular personalities for a couple of reasons: the serious meteorologist doesn't take himself too seriously, and because he was conservative with rain and snow totals, Tom usually was right on the money with his forecasts. That's why when he retired, people from Congressman John Yarmuth to Senator Mitch McConnell to thousands of viewers took notice.
From Paris and the Swiss Alps to zip-lining in Central America, Tom and his wife Pam were having the time of their lives until a strange day this past January.
"I got up one morning, and basically, I just fell flat on the ground," Tom remembered. He went in for a few tests. "Leaving the hospital, I fainted again," he said, "right there on the sidewalk."
Tom's health quickly began failing. He spent February and March with specialists.
"They would come in and say, 'We have a plan and we're going to do this,'" Pam Wills recalled. "And then they changed the plan, and it was just very, very frightening."
Finally a diagnosis came. "They had discovered I had a very strange and very rare disease called amyloidosis," Tom said. Amyloid protein attacks the heart. Tom's was so rare, only about three in one-million patients have it.
"There I am with a very bad heart and a disease that has no cure," Tom said, "and the type I have is so obscure, they don't even have a treatment for it."
Healthy for most of his life, suddenly a heart transplant became Tom's only option.
"When I first heard that, I was just like, 'Nah, that's extreme. We can't do that,'" Tom said.
But for her beloved husband of 41 years, there is no "can't" in Pam. She got Tom to the Mayo Clinic and got him approved for his life-saving heart transplant there. But as the weatherman knows, when it rains it pours. Insurance would not cover the out-of-state procedure, and at the time, Louisville's Jewish Hospital didn't perform heart transplants for amyloid patients.
In a private moment, Tom worried it might be over. "I thought I wouldn't get a heart," he said.
Then came a break in the clouds in Lexington. "UK said, 'We will,'" Tom recalled.
Cardiologist Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, director of the heart transplant program at the University of Kentucky's Chandler Hospital Gill Heart Institute, said of possible heart transplant recipients, "we have to determine is the heart severe enough to justify transplant, and in Tom's case it definitely was. His heart failure was going to get worse and he probably would not make it much longer without a transplant."
Patients wait months, sometimes a year for a match. For others, a match never comes.
"One thing in Tom's favor was his blood type. He was AB," Rajagopalan said.
At age 68, Tom's medical perfect storm was about to hit. The AB universal recipient got on the transplant list June 11. Back for a test on the 12th, the heart of a 42-year-old man was a match.
"We had just gotten dinner," Tom remembered, "and they came in and took my tray away and said, 'Nope, you're not going to eat anymore because you're getting a heart tonight,' and I said, 'What?'"
What had to be fate had Tom nearly fainting again and Pam right along with him." I felt like I had an electric shock go with me," Pam said.
The surgery was a success, and so far, there are no signs that Tom's body is rejecting the donor heart.
"It's hard to express in words [how grateful I am to the anonymous heart donor and his family]," Tom said, "because it's obviously a tragedy for them, and it became a life-saving miracle for me."
Now proudly sporting his scar, Tom is dedicated to protecting his special gift. He's taking his 15 meds a day, down from 27 a day initially. He's doing at least 20 minutes of living room laps and is motivated by his get well cards. And speaking of Cards, the former University of Louisville Meteorology Instructor and longtime Cardinal fan, who even watched a game when he was seriously ill, said the UK staff he loves loved giving him the business during his recovery.
Our resident jokester has a unique way of looking at it.
"That's just sports," Tom laughed. "When it comes to really important matters like this and your health, UK will always be number one in my heart."
Tom and Pam can't say enough about how wonderful the staff at the University of Kentucky is.
Tom is working on building back his heart muscle, but it is going to be a long journey. He decided to speak out in the hope it will encourage more people to donate their organs.