After 30 years serving the Mahomet community, Dentist Val Woodruff is retiring and moving back “home” to Washington state where she grew up and where she met her husband.
“This is such a mixed blessing,” Woodruff said. “I am so happy to be going home. But I am so sad to be leaving my family here. These patients are my family. I had my husband, and we had children, but because I didn’t have family here, everybody was so warm and welcoming and I felt like everybody’s aunt or sister or ‘fill in the blank.’ I will be forever grateful. I can never pay that back. “
Woodruff, who said she has always been interested in science, began working in the basement of a hospital as a medical technologist where she drew blood and ran labs.
“I really liked it, I loved the science of it, but there were no people because everyone was just a blood vessel.”
Woodruff decided to make a pros and cons list where she examined how she could stay in medicine, but have more patient contact and, perhaps, run her own business.
“Dentistry popped to the top of the list,” she said.
After graduating from dental school, Woodruff knew she wanted her practice to be in “a town like I grew up in where you can make a difference at the grassroots level.”
“When you get into something, you don’t know how it will turn out,” she said. “You think you do, but you really don’t. It’s kind of like the rest of life. But I thought ‘I just want to be a part of the community. I want to know the grandparents and the babies. I want to know everybody in between. I want to be able to feel like I’ve made a difference in their lives.’ That has been really important to me.”
Woodruff also wanted to create a space where her employees felt like they were a part of a real team where everyone knew that their work was equally important.
“I wanted a team,” she said. “I wanted everybody on the staff to feel like we had equal importance because I really believe that’s true. Back in the 70’s when the New York garbage workers went on strike, you found out how important they were; they were just as important as the mayor.”
Through team building, team experiences and weekly meetings where employees could talk about the team’s strengths and how to make patients feel like they were being well-served, Woodruff’s staff not only grew, but the patient base did, too.
By showing the staff that they were valued, Woodruff was also able to create an atmosphere where patients knew they were cared for. She said she wanted patients, no matter what state they were in, to feel like going to her office was a bright spot in their day.
“I learned a long time ago that your interaction with a person might be the best or worse part of their day, and you can make it be either way,” she said. “So if my patients were having the worst day, week or month of their life, then we could make that day a little tiny bit better for them or make them feel a little better about themselves.”
“You can’t save the world,” she said. “But you can make one person’s day just a little bit better. Even if it’s not their whole day, even if it’s just for five minutes. And sometimes you can’t do anything. Sometimes all you can do is talk to somebody and hold their hand and let them know that you love them. And that is not nothing. That is a lot.”
Working with dental students at Presence Hospital, Woodruff also reminded them that they, too, can make a difference in a patient’s life.
“That’s one thing I tell them from the very beginning,” she said. “These people are here in a very difficult situation, and just some little thing you do could really make them feel better about themselves on that day. Maybe they don’t have a job, maybe they don’t have any money, maybe they are a single mother in a bad situation and something you do just might make their day better.”
Through volunteer opportunities, Woodruff took her philosophy to places like Haiti, South Carolina, Kentucky, the “Four Corners” near New Mexico, New Orleans and Saint Lucia, among other places.
“Once I got started on Haiti, it opened my eyes to the need of people,” she said. “And to be very truthful, all those experiences were the same because people are the same wherever you go. Whether they are living in a corn cob hut in Haiti or a mobile park home in South Carolina, or a ramshackled old place in Kentucky, all of those people are the same. They are just people who through no fault of their own are in hard situations.”
Woodruff said one of the eye-opening volunteer experiences she had was when she worked in New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina.
“I just remember thinking when I went to Katrina. Katrina was just a small part of this,” she said. “These people had issues before Katrina. They were underserved from the time they were born. Katrina just made it worse.”
“I thought we have Haiti in our backyard,” she continued. “And I saw the same thing in Kentucky and South Carolina. There are many little places of Haiti throughout the rest of the world. It isn’t isolated, it’s within the US boundaries, the Illinois boundaries. It’s every place you look. It’s within the Mahomet boundaries.”
“You go somewhere like that and you’re just hit in the face every day with, through no fault of their own, people are in such a difficult situation,” she said. “And then you come back here and through absolutely no good reason, I’m in this situation. Why is that? I don’t know. That’s for someone smarter than I am to figure out.”
“But what I think you can do is have a great appreciation for how well you have it,” she said. “Nobody has a perfect life and even people in a community like this, people have trying times. But if you’re lucky enough to have what we have, I think you owe it to the world, the universe to show that you are grateful of that in whatever way you think works for you.”
Once in Washington, Woodruff hopes to join a book club and enjoy some down time, but because volunteering is so important to her, she plans to find volunteer opportunities as long as she is healthy and able.
“I feel like I have been so blessed,” she said. “It’s an overused term, but it’s so true. I’m 65 now, but I will be 66 soon and I have had such an incredible life.”
Woodruff now hands off the reigns of her practice to David Noh, who purchased her business earlier this year. Woodruff felt a connection to Noh, who wanted to find a way to connect with patients after working in more corporate dentistry environments in the past.
Noh is excited to get to know patients, to be invested in the Mahomet community and to send his future children to Mahomet schools.
Woodruff said she feels comfortable with Noh because he’s able to connect with and talk to patients in a soft and caring manner.
“I have seen him interact with patients and I’m so impressed,” she said. “He’s going to do so well and put patients at ease.”