WILMINGTON — For Rick Pearce of Burgaw, the saying by Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” certainly describes Pearce’s life. Pearce began his career with Wilmington International Airport in 1998, working in the landscaping department. In 2011, he began taking classes at the University of Mount Olive (UMO) at Wilmington with the goal of obtaining his bachelor’s degree and moving up into a management position. At the time, Pearce was 47 years old.
Pearce’s wife, Cheryl, also decided to enroll at UMO in Wilmington to earn her associate’s degree. Her goal was to become a teacher’s aide, working in Exceptional Children (EC) classrooms.
“Our family was very supportive of our decision to return to school, although probably a little bit apprehensive,” Pearce said.
At the time the couple was raising four kids. Rick also had his own landscaping company and between his full time job airport and part time landscaping business, he was working about 75 hours a week.
“Managing all of this wasn’t easy, and we sacrificed a lot of things, including family fun time,” Pearce said.
In August 2014, Rick was just finishing up a summer semester class and had enrolled in fall classes when he began having some cognitive and balance issues.
“I had just been promoted to shift supervisor with the airport and had gone to midnight shift, so I thought the change in schedule and lack of sleep was affecting me,” Pearce said.
As he started fall classes, Pearce’s symptoms kept getting worse. He began hallucinating, hearing things, and having strange dreams. He could barely walk without stumbling. After several E.R. and doctor visits went undiagnosed, Pearce ended up at Duke Medical Center. By this time, he was completely bed-ridden. He was finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that had attacked his cerebellum and caused inflammation.
“It had affected my balance, coordination, and speech. I lost 30 pounds while I was there, because I couldn’t eat anything. They tried several treatments and finally found something that helped, which was a plasma exchange. I was finally able to get out of bed and walk, albeit using a walker and with a physical therapist helping me learn how to walk again,” Pearce said.
Pearce was released from Duke after three weeks and began several months of physical therapy and continuing plasma exchange treatments, along with trying various other treatments. During this time, Pearce’s life was put on hold. He submitted his resignation to the airport and informed UMO that he would be out indefinitely. He spent the following summer extremely depressed.
“I felt like all my hard work had been for nothing. I felt like everything had been snatched out from under me. I was ready to throw in the towel. Cheryl was right there with me during this entire event. She went above and beyond to make sure I was always safe and taken care of, and I knew I was truly loved,” he said.
Finally, by the end of the summer of 2015, Pearce was ready to fight the disorder and get his life back. He and Cheryl traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and met the doctor who originally discovered the antibody that was causing so many problems. At the time of its discovery, Pearce was the fourth known case (there are now eight). The doctor recommended a change of treatment.
Pearce began feeling better and decided that to re-enroll at UMO for the spring semester to pick up where he had left off. He only had about a year of classes left until he would graduate.
“I began exercising and completely changed my diet,” Pearce said. “Almost immediately, I began to tell a difference. Although I couldn’t maintain the schedule at UMO like I had before, and had to skip a few classes to take a break, I was determined to continue getting better and finish my degree.”
Through the ordeal, Pearce decided to start his own business.
“I want to use what I have learned through this experience to open a health food store in my local area,” he said. “I will be able to use what I have learned at UMO to help me run the business side of things efficiently, and use what I have learned about diet to help others lead a healthier lifestyle. I have accepted the fact that I will probably never be able to go back to work at a typical 9 to 5 job, and that’s OK. I won’t be able to use my degree on a resume`, and that’s OK too. One of my strengths is interpersonal skills, which will help me with running my own business. But, one of my weaknesses has always been managing the business side of things, and now I feel confident that I can use what I’ve learned at UMO to help me successfully manage my own business.”
Pearce is set to graduate in December. He is getting ready to open a new chapter in his life and embark on a new journey, and UMO has helped make that transition possible.
“I’m both proud and humbled at the same time, and that’s how I think I will feel when I walk across the stage in December,” Pearce said. “I am proud of how I have been able to overcome obstacles, yet humbled by the love and support everyone has given me throughout this. I wouldn’t have had the motivation to press on had it not been for the support everyone has given me. Everyone I have crossed paths with has been encouraging, from doctors and therapists, to UMO staff, friends, and even strangers. It’s never too late to go back to school, because you never know what lies in store for your life. You may think you have the best laid plans, but sometimes God thinks otherwise.”
Rick and Cheryl have been married for 20 years. They have four children. Rick is also a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Cheryl graduated from UMO in 2016 with an associate’s degree. She is employed with Pender County Schools as and EC Teacher Assistant.