A congenital heart defect caused Mark Ridder to need a heart valve replacement, but his focus on a health diet and regular exercise helped him quickly regain the stamina to resume his active lifestyle and find inspiration in helping others like him.
Ridder first learned something was wrong with his heart at age 14, when a routine physical before entering high school revealed a pronounced heart murmur. It was 1967 and while the cardiologist told him to avoid strenuous activity, he wasn’t given any additional insight as to what might be causing the condition, or a recommendation that he regularly consult with a cardiologist in the future.
In hindsight, the diagnosis offered some explanation as to why Ridder always struggled as a child to keep up while running and playing with his brother and cousins.
“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.
Ridder maintained a healthy lifestyle and kept active through moderate exercise. 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,” Ridder said.
Following a physical done for an executive position in 1993, 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 would need to be monitored to ensure that it wasn’t worsening.
By 2011, Ridder, then 59, began noticing heart palpitations and that he tired more easily and would become short-of-breath. Initially he attributed the symptoms to aging, but an echocardiogram in the summer of 2012 showed his valve condition, called aortic valve stenosis had progressed to a diagnosis of severe and replacement of the damaged valve would be required.
“It was a real eye opener,” Ridder said. “I had this idea in my head that I may go my whole life and never need surgery.”
Ridder, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, decided to have his surgery done at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, which took additional coordination. 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, who is 63, now runs 4.5 miles every other day and feels “better than I ever have in my life,” said the experience also changed him emotionally as he processed what had happened and connected with other heart valve patients. Understanding the power of a community that can truly empathize, 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.”