Documented: February 2015
Gerry Ruffenach has been active all his life.
As sibling number six in a family of 10 children growing up in Drexel Hill, he started out having to play catch up. At Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, he was an all-season athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball -- and later managed to squeeze in 10 years' worth of getting banged around on the rugby field. He swam and surfed too, and put in his time atop the lifeguard stand as well.
Ruffenach kept going after high school. First, a degree from RETS Electronics School, which launched a 22-year career in telecommunications that had him traveling around the country, working for others and, for a time, owning his own business. About 10 years ago, he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Eastern University, and made the switch to selling medical devices for open-heart surgery.
There seemed to be no stopping this active husband, father and grandfather -- now in his mid-50's -- who lives just outside of West Chester, until health issues arose.
About eight years ago, he started having hip problems, and they escalated until he finally needed a total hip replacement. Recovering from that major surgery was trial enough, but then he had to repeat the ordeal 13 months later when the new hip device failed.
Around that same time, Ruffenach's right shoulder began to really bother him too. The hospital where he had his hip surgery, which was a big, high-volume institute, helped to get him started on cortisone shots, and for a time those were enough.
"At first, it wasn't debilitating," he recalls. "With the cortisone, I could live with it, though I couldn't do as much."
The shots continued for four years, with diminishing returns.
"The shots lose their effectiveness over time," Ruffenach notes, and, for him, the pain worsened dramatically. "I couldn't lie in bed and sleep for more than two hours. I couldn't lift my arm above my head. I couldn't carry my granddaughter. The pain was just excruciating."
Earlier in his life, he had orthoscopic surgery on his shoulder to remove calcification debris with the expectation that full range of motion would return. It didn't, and the discomfort came back one year later.
Equally as bad the pain was what the limitations meant for a once-active athlete, who had passed on his love of sports to his children.
"I'm a big swimmer, a big surfer. I couldn't even bring my shoulder up in a swimming motion anymore," he said. "More importantly for the last few years, I wasn't able to throw a baseball to my son, who is a really good ball player." Losing the ability to have a simple catch with his son, who is now playing Division 2 baseball in college, upset him tremendously and inspired him to take the next step to have the shoulder pain addressed.
In Ruffenach's line of work selling medical devices, he meets many surgical product reps from different specialties and they get to know surgeons well. He knew he didn't want to go back to where he had his hip replaced, so during one business trip to Philadelphia, he asked an orthopaedic rep for suggestions about having shoulder surgery. The orthopaedic rep's first question was, "Where do you live?" When Ruffenach told him West Chester, his advice was, "If I had that proximity to Chester County Hospital, I would go to Dr. Adrienne Towsen."
Remembering the long treks to the city for his family during his hip surgery, Ruffenach made the appointment with Dr. Towsen. And right from the start, he said, "I was totally impressed by her."
As a sales rep, Ruffenach says he's met his share of off-putting personalities in the medical field. That wasn't the case with Dr. Towsen. She was welcoming, caring and professional.
"I was just impressed by the way she took the time to talk me through the full process," he recalls. "Her demeanor, her professionalism, her communication skills, and the way she set up realistic expectations for recovery."
They initially met for about 45 minutes. Dr. Towsen confirmed the problems, and next thing he knew Ruffenach was on the schedule for surgery at Chester County Hospital. Or, as he puts it, "Two weeks later I was under the knife."
The process couldn't have been smoother, which was different than the experience he had with his previous hip replacements.
"My wife and I got to Chester County Hospital early, and everything was set up," he said. "You get checked in, and the people were wonderful."
He remembers: "The doctor came in and talked to me, the anesthesiologist came in and told me what to expect, and then we got started. Next thing I knew, I woke up and my shoulder was done."
Ruffenach spent three days in Chester County Hospital, and came away impressed.
"The new wing in Lasko Tower is spectacular," he reports. "It's beautiful, it's clean. All the nurses -- and really everyone -- are so nice. Visitation for my family was really easy. Even the food was good." More important, he adds, "The recovery has been terrific."
Though he had to keep the shoulder partially immobilized at first, Ruffenach was ready to resume a more active life. The surgery was in the spring, and Ruffenach set a goal to be swimming by the end of August. He made it into the water by the first week of September. The family celebrated appropriately.
"This winter, I took 11 people, including all my kids and their significant others and my granddaughter, to St. Thomas," he said. "I could swim in the ocean, and I could carry my granddaughter on my shoulders. It felt great."
He now has the active life back that he had been missing for so long.
"It's pretty amazing, pretty freeing," he said. "It makes you enjoy your family a lot more, and the things you once took for granted."
He doesn't have the shoulder of the three-sport high school athlete, but his days of living with pain and limited movement are gone.
"I can do a total rotation on my shoulder," he says. "I don't have 100 percent strength back quite yet, but I can rotate my shoulder just like you can."
And maybe best of all?
"I can throw a baseball to my son again, without pain."