Kevin Hines poses in front of a grill.
Doctors used a series of treatments and robotic surgery to repair Kevin Hines’ esophagus. “Now I can eat pretty much anything I want,” Hines said. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Watching the clock knowing you can’t eat dinner after a certain time.

Spending countless nights sleeping in a recliner because you can’t lay flat in bed.

Scouring a restaurant menu to find something you can eat that won’t cause another acid reflux episode.

For the past 50 years, this had been the reality for Kevin Hines, 71.

In his 20s, Kevin began suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, a digestive disorder that occurs when acidic stomach juices, or food and fluids, back up from the stomach into the esophagus. The resulting symptoms include belching, heartburn and discomfort in the upper abdomen.

“I had tried every over-the-counter solution out there,” Hines said. “I knew what my triggers were and made changes to my lifestyle, but would still find myself waking out of dead sleep, coughing and experiencing a terrible burning sensation in my throat that would keep me up half the night.

“Early on, there wasn’t really a fix for the problem, so I learned to just live with it.”

Finding answers

Soon after moving to Berrien Springs, Michigan, Hines learned of the transoral incisionless fundoplication procedure offered by Lakeland General Surgery.

Performed through the mouth with an endoscope, the procedure rebuilds the valve between the stomach and esophagus, restoring the natural anti-reflux barrier to prevent GERD.

Hines scheduled an initial appointment with general surgeon Seth Miller, MD, in hopes of finally discovering a solution.

“Dr. Miller is one of the best doctors I’ve ever had,” Hines said.

The doctor answered all of his questions “and even drew pictures to make it easier for me to understand,” he said.

As a first step, Hines underwent several tests to help Dr. Miller better understand his condition and determine if Hines would qualify as a candidate.

The results revealed some shocking news.

Hines had Barrett’s esophagus. Because of many years of repeated exposure to stomach acid, the cells in his esophagus had begun to change to tissue that resembled the lining of the intestine.

If left untreated, it could develop into esophageal cancer.

Dr. Miller referred him to Spectrum Health gastroenterologist Eugene Zolotarevsky, MD, who specializes in the disease.

For the next few months, Hines traveled to Grand Rapids to undergo treatment at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

Over the course of several procedures, Dr. Zolotarevsky removed the abnormal tissue and cells in his esophagus, using heat from radiofrequency waves.

Hines then returned to Dr. Miller to undergo surgery to fix the problem once and for all.

Tests revealed Hines also suffered from a hiatal hernia, or a hole in the diaphragm which allows the esophagus to poke down into the abdominal cavity.

This is common in people who suffer from GERD.

Dr. Miller planned to perform a hybrid surgery which would repair the hernia using the da Vinci Xi surgical system. At the same time, he also planned to use the transoral procedure to rebuild the stomach valve through the esophagus.

While performing the surgery, Dr. Miller discovered the hole in Hines’ diaphragm was much larger than expected.

After repairing the hernia, he felt confident Hines would find the relief he needed. He wouldn’t need to undergo the transoral procedure after all.

“I trusted Dr. Miller’s decision 100% and valued his transparency with me throughout the entire process,” Hines said. “Since the hernia surgery, I no longer experience the constant bloating and burping sensation after I eat. I’m finally able to sleep through the night without any reflux.”

Because the procedure was performed using the da Vinci robot, Hines only had to stay for one night in the hospital.

“There was no real pain after the surgery and I was up and walking the next day,” Hines said. “I had to ease back into eating normal foods to allow the hernia repair time to heal, but now I can eat pretty much anything I want.

“I feel like a brand-new man,” he said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”