CSU grad flown for emergency brain surgery; finished school despite second procedure, hospital stay

Zach Hill
Zach Hill, senior majoring in Construction Management, is an Outstanding Graduate for 2021 at Colorado State University. December 1, 2021

After a long day of school at Colorado State University and full-time work, Zach Hill came home with a migraine, declined the special meal his girlfriend made and retreated to the couch. He laid down to take a nap — the only real help for his frequent brutal headaches. 

“I remember what I made for dinner because we’ll never eat it again. I made this really good chicken dinner. It was smothered in this corn sauce, and I was really upset because Zach was tired and had a headache and didn’t want to eat,” said Hill’s girlfriend, Landyn Croy. “And so, I finally thought I’d wake him up and tell him to go to bed.” 

Croy saw her boyfriend’s face drooping on the left side and he was slurring his words. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Croy said, her voice trembling 13 months later. “It was literally like being in a nightmare. … He was just like a vegetable; he couldn’t talk. He was very incoherent.” 

Within seconds that night of Nov. 4, 2020, Croy called 911 — against Hill’s wishes. “I kept saying no, no, I’m fine. I feel fine. There’s no need to call them,” Hill said. “Thankfully, she did.” 

Croy said her boyfriend was hitting every stroke checkbox the 911 dispatcher asked her to evaluate. “He couldn’t smile on one side,” she said. “He couldn’t hold his arm up.”

Tennis ball-sized tumor

Brain scans show images of Zach Hill after his first surgery but before his second. Dr. Kevin Lillehei examines how much more of the tumor needed to be removed.
Brain scans show images of Zach Hill after his first surgery but before his second. Dr. Kevin Lillehei examines how much more of the tumor needed to be removed.

Less than 24 hours later, Hill was being wheeled into an Anschutz Medical Campus operating table for emergency brain surgery to remove part of a tennis ball-sized, non-cancerous tumor. The mass was bleeding, pressing on his optic nerve and was attached to his Carotid arteries. 

Hill said that 911 call led to a “full lights and sirens” ambulance trip to a Greeley hospital, a CT scan that revealed not a stroke, but the giant tumor. That preceded hourly neurological checks and a 2 a.m. Flight for Life helicopter ride to Denver when his condition deteriorated. 

Hill, a construction management major in the College of Health and Human Sciences, still had to wait until 5 p.m. for surgery because operating rooms were full. 

Hill knows that was difficult for Croy, his parents Scott and Lisa and his brothers Austin and Logan. 

“I think this is a lot harder for them in the sense that they all were with it and knew what was going on and could sort of process the information,” Hill said. “I would say this experience was very shocking and caught everyone by surprise. I know there were long sleepless nights while I was in the hospital.” 

Banner Health report describing Zach Hill's condition.

‘I would not be here today’  

Compounding the anxiousness was that COVID-19 protocols meant only family members could visit. That excluded Croy, who brought some of her boyfriend’s things to Denver the first morning and sat in her car until the first surgery concluded at 11 p.m. 

Hill’s mother helped him call Croy twice. “I think he was scared,” Croy said. “He was saying he loved me and that was pretty much the extent of it.” 

Hill’s initial 5-hour surgery and another 8-plus hour one in March 2021 both went well, but the Fort Collins native was put on bedrest for a couple weeks each time, putting him behind in schoolwork. Croy, a 2018 CSU graduate and ag teacher at Thompson Valley High School, took time off to help Hill recover. 

An early 2022 scan may mean a third brain surgery in March if medicine fails to shrink the tumor. A much earlier doctor visit made Hill realize how things could have gone differently. 

“After my first surgery, I met with the surgeon and the endocrinologist,” he said. “My endocrinologist said that had Landyn not called 911, I would not be here today. I would not have made it through the night.” 

‘One of the best students’ 

Erin Arneson, an assistant professor in the Department of Construction Management, said that Hill was a stand-out student in the college. “He actively contributed, earned straight A’s and really stood out as a class leader,” Arneson said, adding that after his surgeries Hill was “on strict doctor’s orders to not perform any tasks that could cause stress or strain (like homework) for about a month. 

“Despite these obstacles, Zach spent the end of the semester working to get caught up in his classes. He submitted high-quality assignments and earned an A in CON 367 without taking the offered extension. … He is one of the best students I’ve had here and is more than deserving of any recognition.” 

Erin Arneson

He submitted high quality assignments and earned an A in CON 367 without taking the offered extension. … He is one of the best students I’ve had here.”

— Erin Arneson

Hill said Arneson and other faculty members allowed him to finish the Fall 2020 schedule late, but that he was able to complete the Spring 2021 semester on time despite a second fortnight of recovery. 

“A lot of the faculty helped both rounds … mostly with extensions on deadlines,” Hill said. “All the professors here are great people and want to see us succeed. … I must thank my professors for all their help and patience to work with me to catch up in class.” 

Looking ahead 

Hill already has a full-time job lined up after graduation as a field engineer for Hensel Phelps, the company which merged with Hydro Construction. Hill will work on-site and for the estimator department. 

“I had never thought about wastewater treatment,” he said about his early college days. “I kind of fell in love with the work we do. It’s just kind of grown from there and it’s grown with more responsibilities.” 

Hill said he knows how fortunate he is, even though he lost most of his vision in his right eye. Because it is intertwined with arteries, it is too dangerous to completely remove the tumor. 

Croy said Hill returning to his normal self was “like a miracle.” She said hearing her boyfriend could have died without that 911 call strikes a chord, especially since she said she may be looked at as over-attentive. “I think about that a lot,” Croy said. “In that situation, I guess I was meant to have that quality, I guess.” 

She also said that though she wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, they clicked right away. “Zach’s a pretty special guy,” Croy said. “He grew on me in a way that I didn’t know that I was ready for.” 

Becoming a family 

Hill has another important date circled: June 17, 2022. That’s when he and Croy will marry and — along with Zeus the black Lab and cats Nala and Moo — officially become a family. “We had talked about getting engaged, but I think him nearly dying was pretty much confirmation for both of us that, if we did die, we’d want to be married and to be together.” 

Hill’s proposal took place a month after his first brain surgery and coincided with Croy’s birthday weekend. “We wanted a long engagement because we wanted him to be healthy and we didn’t know what that was going to be like for him,” Croy said, “and we wanted him to be graduated.”  

As for her soon-to-be husband being the College’s outstanding graduate, “He deserves it,” Croy said. “He’s a very, very special person and he’s totally been through the ringer, and he hasn’t flinched a bit in our relationship, in his commitment to school and his job.” 

Zach Hill and Landyn Croy plan to get married in June 2022.
Zach Hill and Landyn Croy will get married in June 2022. Photo by https://www.missmillersphotography.com/ @missmillers_photography

When he proposed, Hill already had a ring made and a photographer on hand at Lake Estes to capture the moment — including two wide, even smiles. “The surgery — having gone through all of this and knowing that she was the one that I was going to spend forever with — I didn’t want to drag it on any longer,” Hill said. “It kind of opened it up in a new light that there’s no point in waiting because tomorrow’s not a guarantee.” 

CSU Outstanding Graduates 2021 

Learn more about Zach Hill in his own words in a Q&A interview with SOURCE as part of the annual Outstanding Grads series. read more