BILLINGS — Toby Hill enjoys his role as activities director at Billings Skyview High School. He also teaches an earth science class there, but Skyview's gymnasium usually serves as his de facto office.
Until a few weeks ago, when it almost didn't.
“(I was) playing Sunday afternoon pickleball (at the Elks Tennis Center),” Hill recalled to MTN Sports last week.
The 48-year-old is physically fit and active. As Skyview’s AD, he oversees everything from speech and debate, to tennis, to football. On the January night he visited with us, Hill was surveying a wrestling dual against Billings Senior. As usual, he was shaking hands with coaches and fist bumping wrestlers.
But the Sunday before winter break while playing a routine pickleball game in Billings, he suffered a heart attack.
“Just actually got done winning a game, so that doesn’t happen very often," Hill joked. "I was sitting on the court waiting for the winners’ court and my chest started to hurt.”
Hill thought he’d pulled a muscle and tried to walk it off, but that didn’t work.
“I knew that one of the gals that I play with, her name is Susan, worked at one of the hospitals, so I actually interrupted their game,” he said.
Susan Schneider, an avid pickleball player who estimates she's been at it for 12 years, is a respiratory therapist in Billings.
"When I looked back over, he was laying down and pretty diaphoretic, or sweaty and pale,” she told MTN Sports while taking a break from another mid-week pickleball game.
Schneider drove Hill to the emergency room on that Sunday where Hill’s wife would meet them.
“He was actually doing OK," Schneider recalled. "He was talking, so I just kind of kept doing an assessment as I was getting him there.”
An EKG showed no heart symptoms. But that was eerily similar to Hill's family history.
“My dad’s heart attack in his early '50s, nothing showed up on the EKG," he said. "It was the troponin levels in the blood.”
Troponin is a protein released into the blood stream during a heart attack and, like his dad's levels, Toby’s were high.
Imaging revealed a 95 percent blockage in one of his arteries. So, Hill spent Sunday night in the hospital before doctors cleaned out his artery and implanted a stent on Monday. He was released on Tuesday.
Only after the fact did Hill learn he was close to suffering the notorious "widow maker," which occurs when the left anterior descending artery — the biggest — is blocked.
“I think that affected my wife more than it affected me. Certainly, it makes me grateful for a wonderful wife and my kids that are 10, 9 and 4,” Hill said.
Hill's kids are often glued to his side helping at events inside the Falcons' gym. He is grateful for his Skyview colleagues who stepped in to help during his days away, and especially grateful for his return to a routine. Because the scare was anything but routine for someone so young and active with no blood pressure or cholesterol issues.
It's a reality that heart attacks don’t discriminate, something to which Schneider can attest.
“Toby is actually my third heart attack in my pickleball career that I’ve been a part of," she said.
Her first was during a tournament at the Billings YMCA where Schneider said she provided full CPR. The second incident was at a national pickleball tournament. Fortunately, all three lives were saved.
After following doctor orders to relax over the holidays, Hill has since returned to the courts, paddle in hand.
“I haven’t played with him, just saw him out here on the court," Schneider said. "He gave me a quick hug and said thank you, so I’m just grateful that he’s doing well.”
Almost as grateful as Hill under circumstances that could've been far more dire.
“I’m sure glad I was in Billings at a pickleball center, and not in the back country hunting elk with my bow,” he said.