Ruth Pearce has always been an avid exercise fan. Growing up as a tomboy, she was active and athletic. In her adult years, Ruth took aerobics classes for decades — she recalls working out to Michael Jackson in the 1980s. When she hit her 60s, some serious back and neck problems caused her to slow down a bit and shift to lower-impact activities like cycling and swimming — but she never stopped moving. Because she was active, thin, and ate a healthy diet, Ruth never gave much thought to her heart.
A Preparatory Heart Check-Up
In 2018, Ruth needed to have a major neck surgery, but her primary care provider insisted that she get a heart check-up before they’d clear her for surgery due to her advanced age. A feisty patient, Ruth was frustrated by these demands. “I told them I have been stressing my heart my entire life through rigorous exercise and that I didn’t need to get checked out,” Ruth recalls. “My blood pressure, cholesterol and all my vitals were good, so on paper, I was perfectly healthy.”
Luckily for Ruth, her physician’s assistant held her ground. She visited Dr. Marc Silver, her husband’s long-time cardiologist, for an EKG and stress test. Her EKG came back very abnormal, but her stress test was good. Dr. Silver explained that she had some narrowing of her aortic stenosis caused by degenerative valve disease.
While it wasn’t life-threatening at the time, he explained that she’d need to have it checked out once a year and he went ahead and cleared her for the neck surgery. Shortly after the procedure, Ruth recovered and was back to her active lifestyle.
A Potentially Life-Threatening Discovery
In December 2019, during one of her husband’s checkups, Ruth tried to convince Dr. Silver that she didn’t need to another heart check-up. He made her a deal that he’d perform an ultrasound of her aortic valve and if all looked good, she could wait two years to return for her next screening.
The day before Christmas, Dr. Silver called to tell her she had very significant deterioration of her valve — and that if she didn’t take it seriously, it could be life-threatening. From there, Ruth recalls that things moved very quickly. She was promptly scheduled for a cardiac cath in order to assess the damage, and from there, she was scheduled for a valve replacement just a week later. Performed by Dr. Frances Wood and Dr. Bryon Boulton, Ruth’s surgery was seamless. “Every nurse or person who cared for me made me feel like I was important to them — they were completely focused on me. The kindness and compassion I saw not only toward me as a patient but among the staff was a beautiful thing to see and so reassuring.”
Fit and Active Once Again
At age 81, Ruth recovered quickly and immediately noticed how much better she felt — with more stamina and easier breathing than she’d experienced in years. Looking back, Ruth recognized that she’d been ignoring symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath that she’d written off as either reflux or normal symptoms of aging. After a month, Ruth got back to exercise — starting with four miles a day on the stationary bike. By March 2020 (when COVID-19 hit), Ruth was biking up to 12 miles a day since the pool was closed. When the pool reopened in September, Ruth got back to her favorite activity — water aerobics which she now attends twice a week.
With 5 kids and 7 grandchildren, Ruth is glad to be back to good health and is very grateful for her WakeMed care team, including Dr. Silver, Dr. Boulton, Dr. Wood and all the nursing and support staff.
“For me, staying active for me is my saving grace — and at my age, roadblocks come often. I’ve learned that there is always support to be found, and if you look hard enough — you can surely find another way to keep moving. Water aerobics keeps me from being stuck in a chair, and for that I am so thankful.”