Our Neighbors.... Dr. Jessica Woodward

You might say Jessica Woodward's life has come full circle - even though it's barely begun. Born and raised in Cloquet, Woodward never left home until her third year of medical school, and then only because the school she attended at the Universi...

You might say Jessica Woodward's life has come full circle - even though it's barely begun.

Born and raised in Cloquet, Woodward never left home until her third year of medical school, and then only because the school she attended at the University of Minnesota,-Duluth only had a two-year program. And after several years of living away, Dr. Jessica Woodward, Raiter Clinic's newest family physician, is back to stay....

As a child, Woodward attended Washington Elementary School and met future husband Erik Lavan when they were both about five years old.

"I played with Katie Modec, who lived in the same neighborhood as Erik," she explained. "The only reason we remembered each other was because he told me I had the same name as his sister."

The two later started dating when Jessica was in her senior year of high school and they went to the senior Prom together.


In high school, Woodward was involved in orchestra, drama, majorettes, 4-H, National Honor Society and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and in the classroom, she was especially fond of science and math.

"It always came a little easier to me than writing papers and that type of thing," Woodward attested. "Erik is more artistic than I am and his talent came in very handy when I was applying to medical school residency. I knew what I wanted to say, but I wasn't very articulate, and I sounded like I was dictating a lab report!"

After high school, Woodward started college at UMD as an electrical engineering major.

"I realized a little ways into it that I didn't really care much for that, so then just went to straight chemistry," she said. "Around about my junior year, I was contemplating grad school versus whatever else I might do. I had done a lot of organic chemistry research beginning in my freshman year, where I spent the whole summer in a lab and writing papers. I found I didn't like being alone in a lab for eight hours a day - I'm a little bit too social and talkative for that - so I decided maybe I'd apply to medical school and see how that went. If I didn't get into medical school, I figured I'd go ahead and get my master's and then teach."

Woodward actually shadowed a couple of the Raiter Clinic doctors who are now her partners - Dr. Palmquist and Dr. Vickie Heren - just to get a feel for what she wanted to pursue as a career.

"I found being a family physician was kind of a nice combination of science and socialization," she related. "You're seeing people all the time, but there's still that nice, strong science background. I decided to give it a shot and applied for the Early Decision Program at UMD. I knew I didn't really want to go to any other med school for a couple of reasons - for one, I could live at home and commute and not have living expenses, and for another, I'm not a real 'live-in-Minneapolis' type of person. In the Early Decision Program, you find out by the end of September of your senior year whether you're in or not."

Woodward was accepted and said she never had second thoughts about whether going to medical school in Duluth was the right decision.

"It just always felt right," she said. "That school fit my personality. It's more laid back, smaller and more personal, and it has a family practice focus, whereas a lot of schools look at family practice as kind of less than the specialties. It's kind of how I grew up - up until I was in high school, we only had family practice here in town. That was all I knew. I didn't look on family practice as being any less than anything else. It was just the norm."


Committing to medical school, however, meant several more years of schooling. In fact, Woodward never once took a break from school, going straight from high school to college and then straight from college to medical school.

"It didn't start to sink in until I was in my residency that all my friends were quitting their jobs to have kids - and I hadn't even had a job yet!" she laughed.

Woodward's decision to pursue family practice medicine rather than a specialty can be largely attributed to her affinity for small town life in Cloquet.

"During school, I had to do rotations in every specialty, and I enjoyed all of them," she related, "but I think if I had to do the same thing every day, all day long, I'd get bored. If I only had to look in ears all day long, that would get too boring. I like the variety - the type of day where in one exam room there's a baby and in the next room there's a senior citizen, a day where you're often going into the nursing home or the newborn nursery, the hospital and the clinic. There's a lot to know [in family practice], but it really does keep you on your toes and it keeps things interesting. You never know what you're going to see from day to day."

Since the first two years of medical school are basically classroom only, Woodward didn't really get out into the field until her third year, which she spent in the Rural Physicians Associates Program (RPAP) assigned to Owatonna, Minn. She and Erik got married right before she left for RPAP, and then the two of them moved to Owatonna for the next nine months.

"It was a great town, and the hospital was Mayo-affiliated," she explained. "It was one of my best rotations because I wasn't commuting up to the Twin Cities for everything and I got to know the people and the doctors. When you're in the Twin Cities on a rotation, you're in a clinic for six weeks, tops, and you don't have time to get to know the doctors and nurses, much less the patients. This one was nine months, and you're able to deliver babies for the patients you first met when you started and it's just long enough to make a few cycles of visits with patients. I made the rounds of the nursing home with one of the doctors, also, and it was nice to get to know the people's names and a little more about them."

She returned to the Twin Cities at the end of June and graduated the following spring. In the meantime, she kept busy going through the rest of her medical rotations.

"I was changing clinics every six weeks and driving from our home in Lakeville to places such as Anoka, which was an hour's drive each way every day. At the time my car would stall every time I stopped - so I just couldn't stop! I learned to take lots of freeways..."


Woodward did her residency at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul.

"It was a really good experience, though I never really pictured myself doing an inner-city residency," she reflected. "It was right downtown next to the homeless shelters and the chemical dependency unit and dealt with a very under-served population. As I look back on it, it was nice to see that totally different side of life. I had wonderful classmates and faculty, and though it was a big hospital, it was run by administrators who were family practice doctors. We had Christmas parties and summer picnics, and I felt like I was part of a community. Most of the nurses never left after they started work there, and some of them had been there 40 or 50 years. You get a little burned out being downtown like that after a while, though, when you spend a lot of your time just finding housing, food vouchers and transportation for people. How do you get someone to take insulin when they don't have a home and are living in a sleeping bag by the river? I think I could work there periodically but not long term, and I admire those who can."

Following her residency, Woodward started her practice at Park Nicollett Clinic in Shakopee in October 2004.

She worked there full time up until (quite literally) she and Erik gave birth to their daughter, Grace, in June 2006.

"I had a really easy pregnancy, and I actually worked on the day before she was born! I didn't want to use up my maternity leave before she was born, sitting home and being bored, and after all - I worked at a clinic right next to the hospital!"

After Grace's birth, Woodward went back to work at the clinic on a part-time basis, but as always, her thoughts (and those of her husband) were turning toward home.

"We had pretty much always wanted to come back up to Cloquet and were just waiting for the right time," she confessed. "Grace was a pretty good reason to finally do it!"

She started looking around for job openings in the Duluth area last June and came up for a couple of interviews.


"[Raiter Clinic physician] Dr. Beth Mork and I went to medical school together and were even in each other's weddings," said Woodward. "I called her one day and asked if Raiter Clinic had any openings - and they did! I came up and interviewed there and luckily got the job. Everything went pretty fast after that, trying to find a house and decide when we were going to make the move. We wanted to be up here before the holidays."

And their dream did, indeed, come true. Not only did they find a beautiful old three-story home they love on Sixth Street near downtown Cloquet, but they were able to move in two weeks before Thanksgiving - just in time to host the family holiday dinner for the very first time!

"We always wanted an older home," Woodward said. "The one we had in the Twin Cities was in a subdivision, where every house looked just like the one next to it. I think the only way we're ever going to move again is maybe when we're empty nesters and three stories is too much for us!"

The Monday following Thanksgiving, Woodward started work as a family practice physician at Raiter Clinic, and she couldn't be happier.

"I'm looking forward to having only a three-minute commute, rather than the 50 minutes I was commuting in the Twin Cities," she commented.

Erik, an electrical computer engineer who works for Seagate in Shakopee designing hard drives for computers, is now able to telecommute - from his new office on the third floor of their Cloquet home.

"He only travels to the Twin Cities a couple of times a month for meetings," Woodward explained, "and it's nice that he can work from home with no commuting."

Woodward enjoys sewing, knitting, crafts and scrapbooking, and together the two of them like camping, being out on the lake and hiking - especially when Grace gets old enough to join them.


"There's just so much more to do up here than there is in the Twin Cities," said Woodward enthusiastically. "Jay Cooke and the North Shore are both so close by!

"It's just nice to be so close to family because we've missed so much over the years," she mused, " - birthday parties, anniversaries, baptisms - the little things it would have been nice to be here for but just weren't able to drive all the way back for them. We usually missed Thanksgiving because I had to work the next day."

Even better, Woodward's mom and dad, who still live in Cloquet, are retired and will be able to watch Grace for them when they're working.

"My parents live out past the hockey shelter," she said. "They have chickens and my dad still goes out in the woods and cuts wood and drives his tractor around and Grace follows him all around the yard. That will be wonderful for her. I don't even know how to raise a child in the Twin Cities, since Erik and I both grew up in a small town. I can't imagine Grace going to school with a class of 700 students. When I graduated in 1993 I knew, at least by name, every member of my class."

Dr. Woodward will work part time at Raiter Clinic to begin with, mainly seeing acute, same-day patients at the start until she develops her own patient list. And she said it was fun to walk into work the first day and find that some of the nurses at the clinic were actually high school classmates of hers!

Jessica and Erik are indeed happy to be home once again, though they're at a different time and place in life than when they said goodbye and moved away several years ago.

And chances are, the big town doctor with the small town heart will be good medicine for the rest of the community as well.

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: .

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