Last December, longtime Garner real estate mainstay Bo Ramsey began to lose her voice. She and her husband Dennis visited doctor after doctor trying to figure out what was wrong with her.
On August 14 she finally got a diagnosis. The ultra-organized 65-year-old real estate agent who figures she’s sold about 1,000 properties, many of them in Garner, is now working on end-of-life plans.
Last month doctors diagnosed Ramsey with bulbar-onset ALS and estimated she has six months to live. But the mother of two and grandmother of six lives for her family and said she has a lot to be thankful for and no regrets.
She still has her mind, and unlike many with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) she still has essentially full functionality in her arms and legs. During an interview in her home with her husband Dennis’ help, she wrote answers to questions in short sentences and neat consistent cursive. She occasionally tried to speak, but can only manage mostly-inaudible sounds; her breathing is labored and she struggles to swallow.
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“I’m a Christian. I’m not afraid,” Ramsey wrote when asked about knowing what was to come. Later she wrote: “I’ve had a great life.”
Her husband said the couple has kept busy, which helps. The couple has visited the beach twice this summer as well as their two sons. And she gets daily updates sent to her iPhone of her grandchildren. During the interview she pulled it out and played a short three-second clip of one of them, beaming with pride.
“I live for my grandchildren,” she wrote.
She also expressed pride in her sons, noting “my sons were in the top 2 percent of GHS” (Garner High School). Both boys went to N.C. State. Ben, the oldest, graduated from high school in 2000 and has since earned master’s degrees in aerospace and electrical engineering. He’s an Air Force captain living in Ohio and working on a PhD in computer science.
Tom graduated in 2002 and lives in Charleston, working as a software engineer after earning a masters in computer science.
In addtion to keeping up with family, Bo and Dennis say their neighborhood, The Village at Aversboro, have been a constant support, and a second family. They’ve also received support from her real estate colleagues including mass participation in the ice bucket challenge, which was gaining massive momentum at the time of her diagnosis.
But as that viral trend slowly fades, the symptoms and reality of the future she faces will not.
“The challenge may not help her, but hopefully it will help other people down the road,” Dennis Ramsey said. “We’re just thankful. You hear about people getting ALS in their 30s and 40s. We still have a lot to be thankful for. We live every day to the fullest, because you just never know.”
Bulbar ALS “skips a step”
Bo Ramsey wrote she is only breathing at about 25 percent efficiency. Those respiratory problems are why this brand of ALS proves fatal much quicker than others. Bulbar-onset make up one in four cases of ALS, a neuro-degenerative disorder. It comes with a worse prognosis and is harder to diagnose; the couple went to several ear-nose-throat doctors first to figure out why she couldn’t speak.
Since it “skips a step” as Dennis phrased it (largely loss of limb functionality that often puts limb-onset ALS patients in wheelchairs), bulbar-onset ALS first attacks the vital function of breathing. Ramsey may eventually suffer other symptoms, but the brand of ALS shortens her expected time-line because it does not waste time incapacitating motor skills.
Not that a protracted phase of such disability appeals to Ramsey even as she faces her challenge; she indicated that the idea being wheelchair-bound did not sit well with her.
“I’m not living until I’m paralyzed,” she said.
Asked about the difficulty of communication, Bo Ramsey initially just shook her head with a frown. She then wrote: “Extremely. People take voice for granted.”
She would know. Her job required talking, and she was good at it. She said she sold 215 homes in the Greenbrier subdivision alone – a neighborhood in which the current Village at Aversboro residents used to live. One of her more recent deals was the sale of the old CVS building at Vandora Springs Road and Timber Drive to friend Lorraine Jordan, a fellow Village resident and bluegrass star who turned it into a coffee house.
“We knew it would have to be something major to get Bo to retire,” Dennis said, noting that when the couple went on cruises the first question she’d ask was to figure out where she could get access to email during the vacation.
She doesn’t work full time anymore but she still has sales she works on that have yet to close.
“I could have worked 10 more years,” she wrote, a line she would later come back an underline.
But now she can’t explain to a client the benefits of brick, the schools situation or any structural integrity issues of a home, at least not without a keypad or pen.
The same goes for communicating with longtime friend Mary Lee. Lee works for Lee-Bryan Funeral Home.
Passion and strength
Ramsey was born in Rocky Mount, the great great granddaughter of of Solomon Pender, founder of Tarboro. She moved to Gettysburg in her mother’s home state of Pennsylvania after her father died when she was three. She worked as a social worker in St. Petersburg, Fla., and later as a Spanish and English teacher in Lancaster, Pa.
During a vacation to meet a friend at Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County she was introduced to her her future husband, an environmental engineer living in Fayetteville. After a two-year long-distance relationship, the couple was married in 1981 in Dennis Ramsey’s parents’ living room in his hometown.
After two years in Fayetteville the couple moved north, making a home in the Greenbrier neighborhood. They lived there for 19 years. Dennis initially said 18, but Bo corrected him with a strained but audible “Nineteen.” Dennis conceded “Her mind is still better than mine.”
She found her passion in real estate, which she had picked up in Lancaster and began on a full-time basis in 1986. She worked hard; she said you have to be tough to work in real estate.
She tries to take that attribute with her in her newest, greatest challenge. When asked the initial answer to her diagnosis, Ramsey wrote one word: “Strong.”
“It’s hard to explain. You have a hard time getting your hands around it,” Dennis said. “She’s always been so strong and active, it’s hard to imagine her any other way. Her voice has always been such a big part of her. It’s a very special voice.”
At the same time as her husband was speaking, Bo wrote: “He’s in denial.”
Dennis Ramsey chuckled lightly. “Maybe a little bit.”