Veteran gives veteran his sight back

Nov. 6, 2017
J.D. Hill sitting in a chair fishing by a lake with a tie-dye american flag shirt
Vietnam veteran, J.D. Hill, was losing sight in his left eye. His Army doctors in Colorado Springs were stumped and sent him to a fellow veteran at UCHealth, who saved Hill’s sight. Now retired, one of Hill’s favorite hobbies is fishing. Photo by Mark Reis

The moon lit the rice paddy in Vietnam where J.D. Hill’s company was pinned to the ground by enemy soldiers.

Several were wounded, but no one could move.

Hill, then 20, decided to try and sneak away to get behind the Viet Cong soldiers who were mowing down his company.

“We couldn’t go in the rice paddy. That was all out in the open. So I grabbed my shotgun, my M16 and a couple of grenades,” Hill said.

When the moon disappeared for a moment behind a cloud, Hill quickly slipped away and climbed a steep mountain. From the top, he spotted the enemy attackers.

J.D. Hill in Vietnam in 1967
J.D. Hill in Vietnam in 1967. Photo courtesy of J.D. Hill

“I saw the flash of their weapons, so I knew exactly where they were,” Hill said.

He quietly crept down the other side of the mountain, then hurried across a field. When he got close enough, he unloaded ammunition from his shotgun and M-16, then threw a grenade, killing the four soldiers.

“Then I hit the ground,” Hill said.

Within minutes, Hill’s company commander was able to call for rescue helicopters.

“We moved them out. Twenty were dead, 30 were wounded,” said Hill.

That was back in 1967 after Hill had been drafted the year before. He served for one year as a private first class in the Army in Vietnam before going on to serve another 18 years around the world.

Fifty years later, when Hill was going blind in the left eye, a brain and eye specialist who also had served in the military stepped up to save Hill’s vision. Dr. Prem Subramanian an ophthalmologist at the UCHealth’s Eye Center and a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, literally wrote the medical textbook on his specialty of neuro-ophthalmology. He attended college at Princeton on a military scholarship, then earned both his medical degree and a PhD. He served at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for 10 years before leaving active duty. Subramanian then worked at Johns Hopkins before moving to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital in 2015.

When Hill’s doctors at Fort Carson and other eye specialists in Colorado Springs couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Hill’s eyes, they sent him to Dr. Subramanian. He had the perfect set of skills to fix up Hill and get him back to his passions of cooking, fishing, sharing memories of the Vietnam War and spending time with his wife and grown children.

“I was losing my vision. Now, I’m getting it back,” said Hill, 70.

The last time he renewed his driver’s license, he didn’t even need glasses for the eye test.

“I’ve been using glasses and had a restricted license my whole life,” Hill said, marveling at his new vision.

A young J.D. Hill with bandages on his arm and leg.
J.D. Hill was injured when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol in Vietnam. Medics had to remove the shrapnel without any numbing medication. Photo courtesy of J.D. Hill

Having a fellow veteran as a doctor gave Hill peace of mind.

About a month after arriving in Vietnam, Hill stepped on a buried land mine that blew up and injured his left arm and leg. The medics didn’t have any painkillers, so they had to dig out the shrapnel and give Hill over 200 stitches without any numbing medicine. The pain was excruciating and left Hill with post-traumatic stress disorder. To this day, he hates needles and isn’t crazy about nurses and doctors. But he likes Dr. Subramanian, whom he sees as a brother in arms.

Hill remembers Subramanian’s first words to him: “I’m going to take care of you.”

“Veterans back each other up,” Hill said. “He stood up for me.”

The will to survive

Hill grew up in California, where he became a foster kid at age 7 when his mother gave up her six children. Everyone called him Jimmy back then. Two little sisters were adopted right away. Two other brothers and a sister were adopted a couple of months later. Hill was left alone to bounce from home to home. Some places were abusive. One was fun. He lived for a time on a ranch in northern California, where he learned to ride horses and bulls.

Hill was out fishing one time when a family drove by in a station wagon. Hill, then 13, didn’t pay much attention. But a boy in the car made a commotion.

“That’s my brother, Jimmy,” the boy said.

It turned out that the family that drove by had adopted Hill’s three siblings, the oldest of whom was 12 and recognized his brother.

The family followed up and won permission through the foster system to reunite Hill with his siblings.

“They asked, ‘Would it bother you if we adopted you?’” Hill recalled.

He was thrilled and spent his high school years happily living in Gridley, north of Sacramento.

J.D. Hill in Vietnam.
J.D. Hill in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of J.D. Hill.

“They were the greatest mom and dad any kid could dream of,” Hill said.

At age 19, Hill was drafted. He spent one year in Vietnam from March of 1967 to March of 1968. He was injured three times, once when the land mine blew up, another time when he fell into a trap called a punji pit. Viet Cong soldiers sharpened bamboo sticks and buried them in holes that soldiers like Hill inadvertently stepped in. He hurt his ankle, but was able to recover. The third injury came when a bullet hit his right arm. He recovered from that too.

Hill was part of an air assault crew that learned to jump out of helicopters as they flew low. The choppers avoided landing to minimize attacks.

“We’d go check the villages and the helicopters would come back and pick us up.”

Hill believes he lived when casualty rates were so high in Vietnam both because he’s lucky and because he has a strong will.

“I do have PTSD, but I lived,” Hill said.

‘I figured I’d be an Army doctor’

Dr. Prem Subramanian wanted to serve his country and avoid debt for his college education, so he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Princeton.

“I wanted to be a doctor, so I figured I’d be a military doctor,” Subramanian said. “It’s a system where you get incredible training. You tend to work with people who are excellent at what they do. You also get a lot of responsibility early in your career.”

Dr. Prem Subramanian
Dr. Prem Subramanian joined the ROTC during college and later served 10 years as a military doctor. When fellow veteran, J.D. Hill, was losing sight in his left eye, Subramanian restored his vision.

When he was 7, his best friend’s older brother died from a brain tumor. That fueled Subramanian’s passion for helping people.

“I thought I might like to prevent something like that,” he said.

Subramanian did his advanced ROTC training the summer between his junior and senior years. That was humbling.

“You’re crawling around in the dirt, firing weapons and learning infantry tactics,” Subramanian said. “I liked it actually. It’s kind of fun to get to drive a tank and run over trees. I liked the leadership side of things and working with a team.”

After college, Subramanian first went to medical school, then earned a PhD before continuing to specialize in ophthalmology with additional training in neuro-ophthalmology, including aspects of neurology and neurosurgery.

Some eye diseases run in Subramanian’s family. His maternal grandfather went blind from glaucoma, while another uncle suffered from a degenerative disease called retinal pigmentosa.

With his expertise in both brain and eye function, Subramanian can help patients coping with complex challenges from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the vision problems it causes, to tumors and optic nerve diseases that give people vision loss and double vision.

During his years at Walter Reed, Subramanian helped many patients who were coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries that hadn’t been seen before. In the past, soldiers who were injured in bomb blasts often did not survive. Now, because of better body armor, service members were surviving IED blasts, but many suffered damage to their extremities, faces, eyes and brains.

“War time, sadly, has always pushed medicine. With every war, we have to develop new ways of treating people. We were used to dealing with bullet wounds in the past. With IEDs, it was blast injuries with tiny fragments. We were seeing these facial injuries that people hadn’t survived before,” Subramanian said.

Along with facial trauma, double vision became a common problem for patients suffering from TBI.

“Sometimes it disrupts the function of the part of the brain that lets you use both eyes together,” Subramanian said.

While he was a resident at Walter Reed, the U.S. embassy in Kenya was bombed. There were two blasts. The first, smaller one drew people to the windows. Then a second bigger bomb went off as dozens of people stood near the windows. Shattered glass caused survivors to suffer severe eye injuries. Several came to Walter Reed for treatment.

On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Subramanian was seeing patients at Walter Reed when he learned about the attacks, including the plane crash at the Pentagon nearby.

“It was chaotic. Even as the day unfolded, there was a lot of uncertainty as to what exactly was coming,” Subramanian said.

He and his colleagues braced for patients, but few came. Most victims of the attack unfortunately died at the scene or suffered severe burns and were treated at another area hospital.

J.D. Hill's name is among those on a Wall of Honor memorial in Fountain, Colora
J.D. Hill’s name is among those on a Wall of Honor memorial in Fountain, Colorado, Photo by Mark Reis

During his military service and now, as a civilian, Subramanian became an expert at treating relatively rare neuro-inflammatory diseases that cause optic nerve damage. Patients can suffer sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes.

“We usually see it in younger patients who are in their 20s or 30s,” Subramanian said.

J.D. Hill's service is commemorated on an honor wall
J.D. Hill’s service is commemorated on an honor wall in Fountain. Photo by Mark Reis

J.D. Hill had dealt with cataracts that his doctors at Fort Carson had removed. But, when he started to suffer from severe vision loss in his left eye, his military doctors and other specialists in Colorado Springs were stumped. That’s when they knew he needed to see Subramanian.

When Hill came to him in the spring of 2016, Subramanian was able to figure out that pressure inside Hill’s brain was in turn, strangling the optic nerve. The condition is much more common in younger women than older men, but Subramanian figured out the problem and moved fast.

“Because it was so bad, we needed to do surgery within a week,” Subramanian said. “He had high pressure inside the whole brain. We still don’t know what caused that pressure, but it was putting pressure on the optic nerve cells and they were starting to die.”

If left untreated, patients with the condition can lose their vision altogether.

J.D. Hill competing in a bull riding event in a European Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in 1986 in Berlin.
J.D. Hill competing in a bull riding event in a European Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in 1986 in Berlin. Photo courtesy of J.D. Hill

In order to heal Hill, Subramanian had to do a spinal tap before doing surgery to confirm that fluid was building in his body. Because of his PTSD, Hill hated having that procedure and has rejected future spinal taps, even if they might detect new pressure that could harm him.

Thanks to his work at Walter Reed, Subramanian understands and respects patients who are coping with PTSD. He lays out facts and lets patients decide what they can handle.

“The biggest thing is the anxiety. So you have a contract with them. You say, ‘we’re only going to push it to this level today and we’ll see how it goes.’ You have to take a step-by-step approach. Otherwise, they’ll run away and never come back,” Subramanian said.

In Hill’s case, Subramanian made it clear that Hill was in charge.

“I respect his decisions. I lay things out for him and tell him that if he changes his mind, I’m here for him.”

Defending freedom

At his home in Colorado Springs, Hill has a tall flag pole out front where he proudly flies two flags. One is the American flag, of course.

“I love my country,” he said.

The other is a flag dedicated to the Vietnam War and prisoners of war.

J.D. Hill holds a bull riding championship buckle
J.D. Hill holds a bull riding championship buckle he won competing in a European Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo in 1986 in Berlin. Photo by Mark Reis

After serving in Vietnam, Hill went on to serve around the world in Germany, Korea and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. While stationed in Europe, he got to compete in bull riding and in 1984, won Bull Rider of the Year in the European championships. Hill received a beautiful silver belt buckle that he keeps polished to this day. In Korea, Hill learned and taught martial arts.

After retiring from the military at age 39, he decided he was ready for a new challenge.

“I went to college,” Hill said.

He studied psychology and food management and graduated with a 3.98 GPA from Pikes Peak Community College. He then went on to complete three years in culinary arts so he could learn to be a gourmet chef.

For more than 16 years, Hill then worked as a chef at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs. He tried to retire once, but got recruited to work at another country club before helping Target set up its regional delis and managing his local VFW post, #3917, for one year.

Then, Hill retired for good.

He loves cooking everything from chicken cordon bleu to cakes and enjoyed being part of a team. He still keeps in touch with staffers who worked for him at the resort. Just like his days in the military, Hill loved the camaraderie of a great group.

“That’s why I was a success in Vietnam. I had good people who took care of me, so I took care of them,” he said.

J.D. Hill at his home with a Vietnam Veteran flag behind him.
J.D. Hill at his home with a Vietnam Veteran flag. Photo by Mark Reis

J.D. has three sons, two daughters and 11 grandchildren.

He loves spending time with people just about anywhere. Hand him a fishing pole and he’ll be even more content. He likes dressing in his camouflage gear and heading out to lakes in parks or fishing holes near the Air Force Academy.

“I love coming across new people and listening to them. I like being outside. I don’t go camping. I did enough of that in the military,” Hill says with a grin.

Thanks to Dr. Subramanian, Hill sees well enough to drive day or night, though he prefers not to drive far in the dark these days.

On Veterans Day, he loves riding in parades or sitting at home and relishing his blessings.

Back when he returned from Vietnam to California, protestors greeted him.

“I was actually spit on and a rock hit me right in the head,” Hill said. “They called you baby killers.”

Outraged by the welcome he received, Hill lunged at the protestor who had thrown the rock at him, but a police officer stopped him.

J.D. Hill fishes at a pond near his Colorado Springs home
J.D. Hill fishes at a pond near his Colorado Springs home. Photo by Mark Reis

These days, service members receive much more respect. Hill said one of his best days ever came about five years ago. He was out at a parade when a little girl tugged on his camouflage pants.

“She looked up and said, ‘Thank you for my freedom,’” Hill recalled.

“That hit me in the heart,” he said. “Combat soldiers put their lives on the line. Thank them for defending our freedom.”

Hill says he’s a proud “soldier for life.”

“God bless America. God bless our troops and God bless the doctors who take care of us.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.