The word “cancer” makes most people shudder. However, for oncologists, doctors who specialize in treating cancer, this word is part of their daily vocabulary—and they take it on as a challenge.
Since 1980, Ruby Grimm, Iredell Health System hematologist and oncologist, has fearlessly accepted this challenge, making every effort to change the course of her patients’ illnesses. Now, after 42 years of treating those with cancer, blood disorders, and saving lives, Grimm is retiring.
A West Virginia native, Grimm had no idea where her healthcare career would take her when she graduated from medical school. Little did she know her medical interests would lead her to the small town of Statesville, North Carolina, and her career would be nothing short of remarkable.
Grimm was one of only five women in her 107-person West Virginia School of Medicine graduating class. After graduation, Grimm was selected to go to North Carolina Baptist Hospital (now Atrium Wake Forest Baptist) in Winston-Salem for her internal medicine residency program.
Grimm explains that during her residency each internal medicine intern (first-year resident) had to complete a two-month rotation in hematology and oncology—a challenging rotation that many interns, including Grimm herself, dreaded.
“The rotation on hematology-oncology was the most challenging because you dealt with not only cancer but also all of the associated, additional medical problems people had. You were doing broad medicine while doing oncology,” she said
Although Grimm’s director had originally assigned her to three months in hematology-oncology, it was shortened to two because the rotation was so heartbreaking for Grimm.
“You have to think — back in the ‘70s, when you got a cancer diagnosis, everybody assumed you were going to die. People didn’t even say the word cancer. They just whispered it. And after being on that floor and seeing people awfully sick, I thought, ‘This is too hard. These patients are so very sick.’”
When the next year of residency arrived, Grimm and the other residents were informed two of them had to complete two, six-week rotations in hematology-oncology. When none volunteered, they decided to draw straws. Grimm was the first straw drawn.
This time, however, instead of working with cancer patients inside the hospital, Grimm was able to work with patients in an outpatient clinic. It was there that she found her passion for oncology and a desire to help people with cancer. She decided treating and diagnosing cancer and blood disorders was what she wanted to do for the rest of her career.
After residency, Grimm stayed at Baptist for her hematology and oncology fellowship. In 1980, after completing her fellowship, Grimm moved to Statesville with her husband, James Bradford, a cardiologist.
“It wasn’t easy to find a place that needed both a cardiologist and an oncologist, and there was no oncology at all in Statesville,” said Grimm.
After arriving in Statesville, Grimm started from scratch and built the oncology program from the ground up. Over the years, Grimm and her oncology team participated in clinical trials, established the tumor board, trained chemotherapy and oncology nurses, and helped start the hospice program.
For the first time, residents of Statesville could receive life-saving cancer care without having to travel to Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Durham, or Chapel Hill.
In the beginning of her career, Grimm spent her days visiting patients at Iredell Memorial Hospital in the morning, treating patients in her office during the day, and going back to the hospital in the evening. When Iredell added hospitalists, she was able to spend less time in the hospital while still seeing patients in the office.
In 2012, Iredell Health System bought Grimm’s office, Ruby Grimm Oncology, and she became part of the Iredell Physician Network.
Throughout four decades of medical advances and changes, Grimm explains that some aspects of her practice actually remained constant.
“Once you enter the exam room with a patient, close the door, and sit down and talk to them, it’s the same. When you get a chance to directly interact with patients, helping them, getting to know them, and advising is still the same,” she said.
The field of oncology, though, has seen significant changes.
“Over 42 years, what has happened in oncology has been dramatic. It’s not just chemotherapy. Now it’s targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and genetic advances. It’s a bad time to leave this profession because the things we’ve been anticipating, waiting, and begging for are here now,” she said.
In her many years of treating and diagnosing cancer patients, Grimm has found making a difference in the lives of her patients most rewarding.
“Even if you can’t save a life, you can help them through the situation. I think that is very rewarding,” she said.
Though Grimm is retiring, she will leave behind a lasting legacy of hard work, commitment, and genuine care for her patients. Her passion, dedication, and emphasis on continuous education completely transformed cancer care in Statesville.
“Dr. Grimm has been a true gift to Iredell County and Iredell Health System with her dedication to her patients and providing them with cutting edge cancer care,” said Pam Westmoreland Sholar, hematologist and oncologist who has worked with Grimm since 1986.
“Although sometimes it was hard and challenging, it was always rewarding and it was an honor to be able to help,” said Grimm.
Photo: Ruby Grimm, second from right, celebrates Iredell Health System’s first cancer accreditation in 1991. Dr. Grimm was instrumental in helping the organization achieve this accreditation.