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Patient, 88, Perseveres to Earn Graduate Degree


 











Shirley Pence, a patient of the Thomas and Lyon Longevity Clinic, holds a trophy, ribbons and medals from the marathons and runs in which she participated well into her 70s.

July 18, 2014 | Shirley Pence, 88, has learned the open secret about aging: To be able to keep doing things, you need to keep doing things.

“It’s about perseverance,” Pence said.

A patient of Priya Mendiratta, M.D., in the Thomas and Lyon Longevity Clinic at the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, surgery at UAMS for carpal tunnel syndrome helped her to complete her work for a master’s degree she received in May.

She was displaying her ability to persevere many years before that obstacle was overcome. Pence was running marathons well into her 70s.

Lymphoma in her right leg and the surgery it necessitated resulted in the loss of the femoral nerve in the leg. That meant giving up the marathons. Still, once she recovered, she kept taking long walks with friends and also started walking down a new path — pursuit of a college degree at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“I just felt I needed to do something,” Pence said.

She had a lifelong interest in politics — her daughter worked for 20 years for former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers — so she enrolled in classes and by 2004, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UALR.

Next up was a master’s degree in liberal studies, also at UALR. That’s when the carpal tunnel syndrome emerged, a condition that might have derailed other individuals her age.

Pence said it might have been too much time at the keyboard of her personal computer or too much time spent raking leaves in her yard, but her fingers were a frequent source of pain.

Her lymphoma had been treated elsewhere, but by the time the carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms began manifesting itself in both her arms, Pence had moved on to UAMS and become a regular patient of Mendiratta.

Surgery at UAMS allowed her to keep moving forward with her plans for higher education.

“My fingers don’t feel like they are on fire anymore,” she said.

In May, Pence achieved her goal and received her diploma. Her 60-page master’s thesis examined the newspaper coverage of the events leading up to the start of the Iraq War.

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream,” Mendiratta said. “C.S Lewis said limitations to intellectual pursuit are in the mind and not limited by physical age. The key to perhaps winning over memory loss is to continue using your brain actively. By age 90, almost 50 percent of patients may have some cognitive impairment. Shirley Pence is a patient who has motivated me to continue working for a long time and to pursue education after retirement.”

Pence agrees. To stay mentally agile and alert while aging, it is important to stay engaged with the world and active physically and intellectually, she said. Much of her own ability to do that stems from her own mettle and character, but she also gives credit to her physician.

“Dr. Mendiratta always expresses great interest in what I’m doing, and she encourages me to stay active, to keep doing what I’m doing,” Pence said. “She’s very supportive.”

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