Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. -- Dr. Wim Ruyten's life changed abruptly and dramatically when he was in the midst of a productive career at Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in 2004.
For 10 years he had shrugged off routine lab results showing he had elevated liver enzymes. The doctors couldn't find a definitive cause and Dr. Ruyten, a physicist with AEDC's mission support contractor at the time, felt fine physically and got on with his life.
"Things changed in November 2004," Dr. Ruyten recalled in an online blog he established later. "I developed severe itching all over my body, as well as chills. An endoscopic procedure at Vanderbilt University Medical Center pinned down my diagnosis as Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a rare but serious disease that slowly destroys the bile ducts and, eventually, the liver.
"My wife and I were devastated. This is a scary diagnosis. Blocking the flow of bile from the liver causes a host of problems, many very serious as the disease progresses. For a little while, I saw my life coming to an abrupt end."
After being diagnosed with PSC, he only shared the news with his supervisor. For several years, Dr. Ruyten kept the knowledge of his disease to himself. He learned of a non-profit organization (PSC Partners Seeking a Cure) that offered advocacy for those suffering from PSC, but, for several years, participated in online discussions under an alias.
"Too many PSC patients and their families are suffering, often in silence, because they feel isolated," he said. "For a while, they may keep up the appearance of normality and health. This can only be done for so long."
Shortly after being diagnosed with PSC, Dr. Ruyten also learned he had ulcerative colitis (UC).
"My UC is still mild, but it creates challenges of its own," he explained. "The connection between UC and PSC has not yet been established, but occurs in about 70 percent of PSC patients."
Earlier this year, Dr. Ruyten decided to become more active with PSC Partners Seeking a Cure, and he has opened up about his disease and networked with others with PSC and their families to help raise money for research into its cause and eventually to explore possible treatments.
One thing Dr. Ruyten wants to do is educate people that something as simple as filling out their organ donor information on a driver's license will make livers available to people with PSC and other conditions.
He said it also helps people who run the risk of any kind of organ failure.
Dr. Ruyten, who will be 50 years old in August, now works with Euclidean Optics Inc., a subcontractor for Aerospace Testing Alliance. As someone afflicted with any disease as serious as PSC, he has a renewed appreciation for life.
His disease currently subdued, Dr. Ruyten still suffers from chronic fatigue. He has reflected on the journey that led him to a rewarding career and to establishing a loving and supportive family.
Dr. Ruyten said he grew up in a working class family in the Netherlands, and nobody in his family, including his ancestors, had ever gone to college. He would be the first.
"My parents and all of our ancestors were hard-working people," he recalled. "My dad was an electrician, and I guess he was, maybe not so much a mentor, but he certainly got me interested in physics.
"I had all kinds of neat stuff to play with when I was a boy growing up. We used to take apart old washing machines and take the relays and timers out of them, 24-volt stuff. He made sure that I didn't play with 220, which is even more dangerous than 110 here."
When he was around 12, Dr. Ruyten's father started to teach the young boy about photography and how to develop the film.
"My dad had a little dark room upstairs that he had built," he said. The boy put a magnet underneath a film plate, poured iron filings on top and photographed the resulting pattern, his first scientific experiment.
"I always had a knack for math - that's something that just came naturally for me," he continued. "But I really think that all the neat stuff that dad brought into the house that I could tinker with led me into deciding to do physics."
Dr. Ruyten said his college experiences were transformative. He considers Dr. Herman Beijerinck, who was the leader of the atomic physics group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands when Dr. Ruyten was a student there, as a scientific mentor.
"I think that's where I really had my most thorough scientific training," Dr. Ruyten acknowledged. "Professor Beijerinck was instrumental in getting me an exchange visit program to the U.S., which is really why I'm still here today."
Dr. Beijerinck said he remembers Dr. Ruyten well, even though his former student left his academic group in 1984.
"Indeed, he was an excellent student who did a beautiful job on designing a mini-beam setup, which on completion gave a factor two larger signals than calculated," he said.
"The design was rather revolutionary, using new concepts to investigate inelastic collisions with short-lived, electronically excited atoms and detecting the product state by detecting the resulting radiative decay."
Dr. Beijerinck continued, "Wim was a very serious student who enjoyed solitary work very much. His great achievement was to fully simulate the experiment in detail, including absolute values of all parameters as number density, beam size, solid angle, detector efficiency, filter transmission, etc., and to design the experiment accordingly. Combining good physics with good technology is Wim's strength."
Dr. Ruyten originally came to the U.S. to attend Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. After joining a Baptist Student Union there, he met Belle, the woman from Kentucky who would eventually become his wife.
They were married in the Netherlands where Ruyten had two job offers after completing his master's degree. The young couple decided to return to the U.S., a tough choice for Dr. Ruyten, whose parents and two brothers would then be half a world away.
Belle and Wim ended up in middle Tennessee.
Dr. Ruyten learned about AEDC through his affiliation with the University of Tenneesee Space Institute (UTSI) as a doctoral student in physics in the late 1980s. He was first on AEDC's payroll in 1990, when he was a Calspan employee at C-STAR, a short-lived joint venture between AEDC and UTSI.
He was granted U.S. citizenship that same year. Dr. Ruyten, who has received accolades for his work on Pressure Sensitive Paint (PSP) at AEDC, is both looking forward to and dealing with the challenge of riding his bicycle from Tullahoma to Chicago, starting April 23.
He is doing it as a participant in the "Itching for a Cure: Road to Chicago'' fundraising challenge, organized by the PSC Partners Seeking a Cure foundation.
"There is fresh hope that new research may unveil the factors that determine who gets this disease and why," he said. "This may lead to new insights into prevention, better management of the disease for those already affected, and, eventually, perhaps, an actual cure. But research dollars are hard to come by. There are 'only' about 10,000 PSC patients in the U.S., a number 'too small' to generate the interest of the big drug companies."
To learn more about Dr. Ruyten, PSC and what can be done to help, go to http://www.euclideanoptics.com/Chicago/index.htm.