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Bill Ruth

How do you describe Bill Ruth? A life-long athlete. A coach. A mentor. A Baby Boomer. A role model. A devoted husband. A heart disease survivor. The truth is, he's all of these things.

A fitness fanatic, Ruth excelled in the swimming pool at an early age, earning high school district and all-state recognition as well as being a 12-time All-American N.C.A.A. swimmer in college. That's where he met his wife of 42 years, Sherry. She shared his enthusiasm for fitness and swimming, also becoming an All-American N.C.A.A. swimmer in college. Sherry went on to become an accomplished body builder, triathlete and a coach working side-by-side with her husband. After graduation Bill became a professional triathlete, attaining the #4 ranking in the world. He also devoted himself to others as a health and physical education teacher for 34 years, a swimming coach for 20 years and a cross-country and track and field coach for 24 years. A native of Pennsylvania, Ruth spent most of his teaching and coaching years in Bethlehem, PA.

When they retired in 2007, the Ruths moved to Estes Park, CO. But, retirement didn't last long and soon they found themselves coaching again at the local high school. Ruth maintained his rigorous daily training schedule, pushing himself to extremes in the altitude of the Colorado Rockies.

In late 2015 he noticed a change in his body's reaction to exercise. "I did hard workouts on my bike," Ruth says. "When I pushed my intensity way up, my legs would seize up on me. This happened two days in a row and on the third day the whole exercise routine was horrible. Sherry suggested that I go get blood work done. The results came back normal. The next night, we helped put on a fun run from The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. I started running with a former student, got half way down the hill from the hotel and was so winded I felt like I was dying. My co-runner told me I sounded awful. I told her I was going back to the hotel but I didn't get very far before I couldn't go another step. I later learned that I was experiencing continual atrial flutter that was depleting the oxygen in my body, preventing me from walking up the hill. Sherry took me to the doctor the next day."

An EKG revealed that Ruth was experiencing atrial flutter and a subsequent echocardiogram showed a bicuspid aortic valve and an ascending aortic aneurysm. "I thought the doctor was going to give me a pill and I would be on my way," Ruth remembers. "Instead, the doctor ticked off a long list of things that was wrong with my heart. All I could think of was that I was going to die." Sherry remembers thinking that the doctor had just described her husband as a walking time bomb. They left the doctor's office in a daze. True to their educator roots, they immediately began researching Ruth's diagnosis. Conversations with a former student who is now chief of cardiology at a large medical center in Pennsylvania as well as with friends in Dallas led them to Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital. "My former student told me if you can go to Baylor, go to Baylor," says Ruth. "That was enough for me and Sherry, the decision about where to seek treatment had been made."

The day after Christmas 2015, Ruth received a call from an interventional cardiologist specializing in electrophysiology procedures and on the medical staff at Baylor Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital. Bill was referred to BHVH for evaluation and for a heart rhythm problem. The cardiologist assured him that he wasn't a walking time bomb and encouraged him to remain active, although within limits, to stay as fit as possible going into his procedure. They discussed timing of treatment, explaining that his rhythm problem needed to be addressed before he could undergo surgery to replace his valve and repair his aneurysm. The cardiologist wanted his heart to be as strong as possible for upcoming major surgery. BHVH helped arrange travel for him and Sherry, as it does with all out-of-town patients. The cardiologist performed an ablation to correct his atrial flutter in January 2016. They knew he had a valve and aneurysm issue and were able to determine how significant the issue was during the procedure.

After the ablation procedure, other physicians on the medical staff of Baylor Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital and Baylor Dallas visited Ruth's room to discuss the timing and details of the surgery to fix his valve and aneurysm issues. Ruth and his wife returned home to Colorado so he could recover from the ablation and prepare for his surgery. "The confidence the doctors projected was calming and reassuring," says Ruth, "it put us at ease and reassured us that we had made the right decision to come to Baylor."

On April 27, a cardiothoracic surgeon on the medical staff at BHVH replaced Ruth's genetically malformed aortic valve with a tissue valve. Ruth presented with one of the most common valvular heart anomalies. His valve was significantly narrowed from calcification resulting in poor ventricular function of 20 to 25 percent. By replacing it from the base to the ascending arch, the surgeon also eliminated the aneurysm. In most cases an aneurysm is asymptomatic so when symptoms do appear it's often too late as the aneurysm has dissected or ruptured. This can be extremely serious, often proving fatal, which compelled us to do the surgery. Thankfully, he is on the extreme end of fitness and this helped him come through the surgery successfully and has contributed to his unbelievably speedy recovery.

Dr. Juan MacHannford, vice chair of cardiovascular surgery at Baylor Dallas, medical director of cardiovascular surgery and a cardiothoracic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital, says that a bicuspid valve is often accompanied by an aortic aneurysm. "These are genetic abnormalities that frequently go hand-in-hand," explains Dr. MacHannaford. Ruth's mother had the same condition. Patients with a history of heart disease in their families need to follow up regularly with their primary care physician." Ruth agrees and wishes his mother's physician had mentioned the genetic origin of her heart problems.

Ruth's spectacular recovery and positive outcome underscores the value of the couple's diligent research on the best place to treat his heart issues.

On June 16, Ruth had his first follow-up visit with his surgeon. The news couldn't have been better for Ruth and his wife. His prognosis is extremely good. He's back on his bike trainer and he should be able to resume swimming within a few weeks.

Ruth and his wife couldn't be happier with the care they received from the entire Baylor family. "They were all angels," says Ruth. "Everyone from nurses to those in the café to the housekeepers and support staff were warm and caring. You could tell they love what they do and they know why they are here, to care for the patient and the patient's family."

After they returned home, Sherry wanted the leaders of the hospital to know how grateful she and her husband are for the care he received. She put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the hospital president, Doug Lawson. Her letter reads in part, "…we want you to know that the leadership that you have provided and the atmosphere you have created with your entire staff is one that allows every patient and visitor to see and feel just how much they enjoy what they do in providing the absolute best, kindest, most considerate care to patients and their families. All of the staff was always pleasant, personable, positive, supportive and enjoyable to spend time with. The time we spent there felt less like a hospital stay and more like time spent with friends. The friendly and positive atmosphere in which care is provided is unlike anything we have ever experienced, or heard of, before."

"I think I'm going to be just like I was, but I'm going to have to cool my jets a little," says Ruth. "I'm finding other friends that I raced against that are having the same types of health challenges so when we go out and ride our bikes, we just go a little slower."

Atrial fibrillation, bicuspid aortic valve
and ascending aortic aneurysm.

Bill Ruth's heart experienced several serious issues:

Atrial Fibrillation:
According to the American Heart Association, atrial fibrillation, or afib, is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. Some people refer to afib as a quivering heart. An estimated 2.7 million Americans are living with afib. Ablation is one treatment approach used for cardiac arrhythmias and was the approach used to treat Mr. Ruth's afib. Before ablation surgery, electrical mapping of the heart is performed. An electrically sensitive catheter is used to map the heart muscle and the origins of the "extra" electrical activity throughout the heart. The map tells the physician which areas of the heart are creating problematic electric signals that interfere with the proper rhythm. To perform an ablation, a catheter (thin, flexible tube) is inserted into the patient’s blood vessels and is gently guided to the heart. The physician carefully destroys malfunctioning tissue using the catheter to deliver energy (such as radiofrequency, laser or cryotherapy) to scar the problematic areas. The scarred areas will no longer send abnormal signals. If successful, the heart will return to a normal rhythm. This minimally invasive procedure usually has a short recovery period. Patients are generally placed on a short course of anti-arrhythmic drugs while the procedure takes full effect. For more information about atrial fibrillation, visit American Heart Association's or

Bicuspid Valve and Aortic Aneurysm:
According to the Cleveland Clinic, at least one-third, if not half, of patients that have bicuspid valves also have a propensity to develop an aneurysm of the first portion of their aorta, including the ascending aorta. A bicuspid aortic valve is most commonly a congenital heart defect in which the aortic valve (valve between the left ventricle and the aorta) has only two flaps (cusps or leaflets) instead of the normal three. Because of this, patients with a bicuspid valve may develop a narrowed or leaking aortic valve. Narrowing or leakage do not necessarily develop in childhood, but may occur in adulthood. An aortic aneurysm is an enlargement of the aorta, a large artery that receives blood from the heart's left ventricle and distributes it to the body. Approximately 2% of the population is born with a bicuspid aortic valve and between 30 to 50% of those patients are prone to develop an aneurysm of the proximal aorta including ascending. Mr. Ruth's surgery involved dividing his sternum, stopping his heart and cooling it, placing him on a heart-lung machine, replacing his genetically damaged valve with a tissue valve, replacing his entire ascending aorta with a sterile cloth tube, restarting his heart and wiring his sternum back together. The surgeon also removed the valvular leaflets and all calcium built up around the valve.