“You will save a thousand lives,” Dr. Dwight Harkens told Ruth Ferrick. “From what we have learned in operating on you, we can now operate on others who have the same trouble.”
However, going into the operation, Mrs. Ferrick had been given a one in a thousand chance of survival. She had been born with a congenital heart defect, and had spent more than 40 years with insufficient oxygen. By 1954, the situation was critical.
A native of Wilmington, she was born Ruth Waterman. She was always in a delicate condition, which showed in her blue complexion. There was enough oxygen in her blood to keep her alive, but not enough for any demands on her system. Most infants born with that condition did not survive beyond one year.
Ruth was able to attend school, but she had to be the last pupil in and out of a classroom, lest she be accidentally jostled. It took her 13 years to complete the 12 years of public school.
While her brother and sister engaged in sports, she sat home. Her brother Harold Waterman had lost an arm at age eight. He became a star pitcher in high school and captained three athletic teams. He then played in the minor leagues, and pitched a no-hit game and had a tryout for the Boston Red Sox. (Story in last week’s Town Crier.)
Ruth sat at home and drew pictures, eventually becoming a proficient artist, able to give lessons. If she went out at all, it was for church or a trip to a doctor’s office. She was repeatedly told that nothing could be done for her condition. An operation would be too risky. Doctors would give her some medicine and tell her not to exert herself.
In 1941, she married Bill Ferrick. With careful planning, she was able to keep house, but they knew there could be no children. During World War II, while Bill served in the Army in Europe, she lived with her parents again, on Adams Street in Wilmington. After Bill’s return from the Army, the couple lived with them, only Lois Waterman had become an invalid. After her mother’s death in 1948, Ruth and Bill moved to a one-level house in Wakefield.
In 1951, she consulted with Dr. Harken at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. He thought that she was not terribly limited by her condition, and that surgery would be too risky.
Three years later, though, her condition had worsened. Simultaneously, new techniques in surgery were being devised. In April 1954, she again met with Dr. Harken. He was astounded. She had become totally incapacitated. The ratio of white blood cells to red blood cells was at the level of a dying person.
She entered the hospital, and on May 2, a team headed by Dr. Dexter used a catheter, inserted in her arm, then forced up through an artery, to explore the chambers of her heart. It was an extremely painful process, but the doctors found that a tube was plugged between the two sides of the heart. She was in extremely critical condition, gasping for breath
Dr. Harken told her that her only chance was surgery, but it was a desperate gamble, with only one chance in a thousand for success. She agreed to go ahead with the surgery.
The surgery on May 6 took four hours, with a whole gallery of surgeons watching. Dr. Harken used a new technique called “Direct Pressure Control.”
Her body responded to the surgery with amazing speed. As the nurses wheeled her back to her bed, they noticed the changing color of her skin. What had been blue for many years began to turn pink. For a week and a half, though, she knew nothing of her improvement, until she finally had a chance to look in a mirror. She wanted to see her tongue, which had always been blue. Now it was pink!
As she recovered, she learned of the hopes that Dr. Harken had. He now felt confident that this operation could be done on other patients who had the same condition. He told Ruth that she was the first patient on whom he had ever tried this operation.
On May 29, Ruth Ferrick walked across the street to visit a neighbor, something that was impossible just a month earlier. She underwent a dramatic change, building a life full of activities others take for granted. She could be found striding around Wakefield wearing a button reading, “Mended Hearts Club.”
She lived for another 24 years and was in her late 60s when she died on May 30, 1978.