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Improving Health, One Community and Physician at a Time: Price County

Thank you, Price County, for Leslie Patterson Ruffalo, who continues to run at a feverish pace in the pursuit of eliminating health and wellness disparities.

Health professionals discuss their work

Leslie Patterson Ruffalo ’04 prepared for cross-country and track meets with the same intensity that she now devotes to her community-health research and teaching.

Her research focuses on food insecurity, veterans’ health, rural health care access, and school-based health and wellness — all bridged by the theme of community engagement.

“I’m there for the long haul,” says Ruffalo, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “Until health disparities don’t exist in our country, there’s work to be done.”

She ran cross country and track at Park Falls High School (later Chequamegon High School) as Leslie Patterson, and she became a decorated runner, coached by her mother, Mary. The two were inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2016.

Leslie Patterson Ruffalo went on to run for the Badger team, which won a Big Ten cross-country title during her freshman year, and, along the way, she logged several podium finishes in the conference’s track championships.

“I’m hopefully shaping and changing a new generation of doctors.”

“What you learn from college sports is whether you love the sport or do it just because you’re good at it,” she says. “I see that in my professional life. You need to love what you do to push the boundaries of success.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology at UW–Madison in 2004, she earned a master’s and doctorate at UW–Milwaukee in education and public health, respectively, and built a reputation for hands-on research.

“Research can be powerful when we engage the people in the affected communities,” she adds. “Most communities know their needs and where the disparities are. The satisfaction comes in how the community trusts you and how you become a part of its fabric.”

In her teaching, Ruffalo exposes prospective physicians to public- and community-health issues so that they leave medical school with a more balanced view.

“One of the big payoffs is to see future physicians exposed to health inequities and real-life problems that their patients may face,” says Ruffalo. “I’m hopefully shaping and changing a new generation of doctors.”

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