By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Mark Ridder was only a 14 when he took a routine physical before entering high school and learned he had a pronounced heart murmur.
He had always struggled as a child to keep up while running and playing with his brother and cousins, and that exam nearly 50 years ago explained why.
“I would always lag behind, and would get winded easily, but I always thought it was because I was smaller than they were,” he said.
The cardiologist at the time told him to avoid strenuous activity, but he wasn’t given any insight into what might be causing the condition. He also wasn’t told that he should regularly consult with a cardiologist in the future.
He grew up watching his father suffer from heart disease and was determined not to follow in his footsteps of heavy smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. Ridder’s dad had his first cardiac event at age 39 and struggled with progressive atherosclerosis until he died at age 68.
“I saw how it limited his life and ability to function, and I knew I didn’t want that to happen to me,” said Ridder, who maintained a healthy lifestyle and kept active with moderate exercise.
In 1993, he had a physical done for an executive position. Ridder got his first echocardiogram, which revealed that he had a bicuspid aortic valve — one that has only two leaflets instead of the normal three — and calcification was preventing it from properly opening or closing.
The condition was congenital, meaning the deformed valve was present at birth, and he would need to be monitored to ensure that it wasn’t worsening.
By 2011, Ridder, then 59, began having heart palpitations, shortness of breath and became tired more easily. Initially he attributed the symptoms to aging, but an echocardiogram in the summer of 2012 showed his valve condition, called aortic valve stenosis had become severe and replacement of the damaged valve would be required.
“It was a real eye opener,” said Ridder of Wichita, Kansas. “I had this idea in my head that I may go my whole life and never need surgery.”
He decided to have his surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, which took additional coordination. Heart valve replacement, using a bovine bio-prosthetic tissue valve, was done in November 2012. His recovery had ups and downs, but Ridder credits his 12 weeks of cardiac rehab for helping him quickly regain strength and stamina and reach his goal of returning to a healthy lifestyle.
“I decided I’d know I was back if I could condition for and run a 10K,” Ridder said. He met that goal in May 2014, less than two years after his valve was replaced.
Ridder now runs 4.5 miles every other day and feels “better than I ever have in my life.”
The experience also changed him emotionally as he processed what had happened and connected with other heart valve patients. Understanding the power of community, Ridder decided to mentor others as an American Heart Association Heart Valve Ambassador.
“I’m so grateful each day that I have a healthy heart and healthy life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be alive without this procedure.”