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Dr. LouAnn Woodward The New Picture of Health: Vice chancellor makes history

Published on Monday, June 1, 2015

By: Gary Pettus at 601-815-9266 or gpettus@umc.edu.

Published on June 01, 2015

This is not her mom's life. Which is no criticism of Bobbie Heath, the woman who helped shape the life of UMMC's new vice chancellor.

In fact, it was Bobbie Heath who said it: "Don't give her my life - don't give her an ordinary job, an ordinary day. If something is not challenging to her, she loses interest."

The new CEO of 10,000 employees, some 3,000 students, five health professions schools, four teaching hospitals, two community hospitals, a yearly operating budget of $1.6 billion, and heir to a delicate relationship with the board that okayed her promotion, Dr. LouAnn Woodward ('91) should not be losing interest, ever.

Brought up as LouAnn Heath on County Road 101 in a tiny Carroll County community, she lives now in Mississippi's fastest lane in its largest city, leading one of its most important institutions in the challenging field of health care, in the state that's probably the most health-care challenged.

She's the first woman to hold this job, one she had been groomed for and sought - with all its potential pitfalls and astonishing possibilities - eyes wide open and focused on a vision.

Yes, she reads you

In her role as vice chancellor, Dr. LouAnn Woodward is the face and voice of the Medical Center.
In her role as vice chancellor, Dr. LouAnn Woodward is the face and voice of the Medical Center.

LouAnn Heath didn't just read books. She inhaled them.

Asked what her daughter's favorites were during her youth, Bobbie Heath said, "Any and all that were in the library."

Miss Onyx, her grandmother, let her read her own books, including a back-breaking work of poetry, devotionals and more titled "Quests and Conquests." It seemed to hold special secrets. And she liked the name.

"Little Women" was, and is, a favorite, and she's still crying about Beth. But she also liked Poe's "A Tell-tale Heart."

In school, she hung out with a novelist-to-be - Donna Tartt, a 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for "The Goldfinch." In the fourth grade at Kirk Academy in Grenada, LouAnn and Donna spent recess together trying to teach themselves French.

At the local library, she stretched the numerical limits of its lending policy. At home, she even read the encyclopedia, devouring some of the volumes cover to cover. Her family, including her younger brother Holland Heath, kidded her about this.

Years later, in med school, she'd have the last laugh.

All this is not to say she spent all of her time indoors, her nose in a book. The arm-wrestling champion of the fourth grade was LouAnn Heath. Even against the boys.

Books couldn't tell her everything she wanted to know, and she was particularly curious about two subjects - birth and death, and how they work.

Growing up on the family farm, halfway between Carrollton and Grenada in the Jefferson community, she had many opportunities to witness both.

"On this hill, where we live, there was always a new animal to be brought in or one to die," Bobbie Heath said. "We had a pig to die, and LouAnn wanted to be there when the vet came to find out what caused it."

LouAnn was very upset when she got home and discovered she had missed the autopsy.

Dead snakes on the side of the road also engrossed her - what was happening to their nerves and muscles?

"She followed me around on the farm asking me a lot of questions," said Bruce Heath, her father. "By the time she was older, she probably knew more about the animals than I did."

Because of her probing mind, her parents believed she could do anything she wanted to do, and told her so. And she believed them.

By the fourth grade, between wrestling bouts with boys and French, she was telling her teacher she wanted to be a doctor. On the day she finally told her father she wanted to go to medical school, it was less a statement than a question.

"I knew what was on her mind: whether I could send her," he said.

Recalling her childhood, Woodward said, "I never thought about, 'Are we rich or are we poor?' By today's standards we would be poor. But we had everything we needed."

They had more than some families down the road, who had no car, no electricity, and whose chickens and dogs ran in and out of the house like the kids.

The Heaths owned a car they rode in to church and town, a farm truck, a tractor and hay baler. They had plenty to eat. But no disposable income.

"I didn't have much money," Bruce Heath said, "always barely staying above water.

"But I told her, 'If you want to go to medical school, don't worry about how it's going to be paid for. I'll sell part of my land if I have to.'"

She did not depend on her parents alone. As a microbiology major at Mississippi State University, she worked mornings at the vet school and afternoons in a grocery store.

"She always had a job," Bruce Heath said. "She always worked hard."

Sumner Foundation Scholarship funds - reserved for UMMC students from five Mississippi counties, including Carroll - helped put her through medical school.

Torn between teaching and healing for a living, she arrived at the Medical Center in 1986 as a researcher. A year later, she surrendered to her fourth-grade dream and entered medical school.

If she was looking for a sign that this was the right decision, she found it, Bobbie Heath said.

"One day when she was a medical student she called me at work and said she had helped deliver a baby in an elevator. She told me, 'I feel like God put that woman there for me.'"

Woodward found her calling, not in OB-GYN, but in the emergency room, where challenges are born every day.

"If you went and hung out in an emergency department for 10 or 12 hours," she said, "before long somebody is going to whip out their trauma shears and cut a piece of tubing over here to try to hook it up to a piece of tubing over here.…

"It's an environment where you don't always have every single thing you need, and you learn how to figure out a way to make it work."

It's a skill that transfers very well to her new job, said Dr. James Keeton ('65), her predecessor and now a distinguished professor of surgery/pediatrics and advisor to the vice chancellor.

"She cuts right to the chase. It's: 'I see this problem, I need answers, I need you to help me fix this.'"

Outside the elevator, there were other signs that medicine was her destiny. In medical school, after she answered a tough and apparently obscure question, her instructors asked her "how in the world she knew that," Bobbie Heath said.

"She told them, 'I read it in the encyclopedia when I was a child.'"

The loves of her life

Dr. LouAnn Woodward and husband Jon Woodward gathered with their children for this recent family portrait. They are, from left, Olivia, Julianna, Jack and Laura Leigh.
Dr. LouAnn Woodward and husband Jon Woodward gathered with their children for this recent family portrait. They are, from left, Olivia, Julianna, Jack and Laura Leigh.

By her third year of medical school, she had met Jon Woodward, the future father of their four children.

On Jan. 29 of this year, she brought her husband to the Medical Center, where she introduced him to a town hall gathering organized in the midst of the vice chancellor's search.

"Jon - his jacket is hiding it, but he does have angel wings," she said. "We have been married for over 20 years and I finally accepted the fact that I'm just not easy to live with. He has stuck it out." 

Julianna, 19, their oldest daughter, was away at college and couldn't make it, but with them also were their 17-year-old twins, Laura Leigh and Olivia, and son Jack, 15. Below them, at the podium, stood the woman who used to mesmerize them with her recitation of "Jabberwocky." And what a frabjous day it was.

By asking them to be with her for that pivotal moment in her career, her message to them, and to her audience, was clear: "My family is the most important thing to me."

Beyond her kin, she has another family, the one at UMMC. Woodward has been part of the Medical Center for 29 years now, as a student, faculty member, physician, administrator and leader.

"I have been here a long time, and I feel like I know almost everybody," she said, "but I don't."

Before taking over as vice chancellor, Dr. LouAnn Woodward relied on the mentorship, and friendship, of her predecessor, the man who led the Medical Center for more than five years, Dr. James Keeton.
Before taking over as vice chancellor, Dr. LouAnn Woodward relied on the mentorship, and friendship, of her predecessor, the man who led the Medical Center for more than five years, Dr. James Keeton.

Among those she does know best are the students. Before she succeeded Keeton, she was his right hand, not only as associate vice chancellor but also as vice dean of the School of Medicine.

At an academic medical center, as she discovered, she could be both a teacher and a physician; she didn't have to choose, and the students - in all of the professional schools - mean a lot to her, in part because of what they mean to the state.

"Getting Mississippi off the bottom is not something the Medical Center can do alone," she said, "and if the students' experience here is positive, they are much more likely to be willing partners 15 years down the road."

Which brings us to her vision: Thanks to investments, partnerships and ongoing projects at the Medical Center, her hope is that within five years Mississippi will no longer be last on almost every list; people outside the state will be asking, "'How did y'all do that?'

"We can do things that can only be done in Mississippi," she said. "And if we don't do them, they won't be happening."

In that sense, there is a third family, or families, in her life - the kind she knew mostly from a distance on County Road 101. The families who had no electricity or running water, no car, no access to medical care.

It's her concern for them that makes her right for her new job, say those who know her.

"Being a lifelong Mississippian, she has a love of Mississippi and has spent her career at the Medical Center," said Brian Rutledge, chief of staff in the vice chancellor's office.

"She loves the Medical Center. In working to improve health care in the state, she has combined those two loves."

Her previous position as associate vice chancellor, he said, "allowed her to have constant access to Dr. Keeton. This experience allowed her to slide right into this role without disruption."

That's what happened on Feb. 18, 20 days after the town hall, when Dr. Dan Jones, University of Mississippi chancellor, announced the appointment of the first female vice chancellor in the Medical Center's 60-year history.

But, as Woodward has said, "I won't be the last."

No longer UMMC's No. 2, Woodward is making the final decisions that were formerly Keeton's domain.

"That's an awesome responsibility," Keeton said, "and not to be taken lightly because of what it means for the state of Mississippi. She has a fabulous leadership team surrounding her that she helped build, but the buck stops with her, at least on our campus.

"But she knows parts of the job better than I did, particularly education. I couldn't have accomplished what we did it if she had not been with me. She has been a great friend to me."

Although Keeton agreed to stay on for a while to shepherd some major projects, including collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the expansion of Batson Children's Hospital, Woodward is spending more time than ever meeting with donors and policy makers.

She will also be giving more speeches and explaining to the outside world what the Medical Center does, Keeton said.

"As vice chancellor, she is the voice and face of the Medical Center."

She is the voice and face Dan Jones chose, a preference approved by the trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

That may have been the last thing Jones and the governing body agreed on publicly. He's leaving his post as chancellor, after clashing with the board on several issues, including management of the Medical Center.

The aftershock of that shake-up is one more challenge for Woodward, who has said that the "connecting piece" in the working bond between her and Keeton in the beginning was "our mutual respect and love for Dan Jones."

The IHL controversy has created "tensions," she said. "For the sake of the Medical Center, one of my top priorities is to have a good relationship with the board.

"Like most people who served under Dr. Jones, I am sad about his leaving. However, I believe Ole Miss is in a very strong and positive position, so I am optimistic that a search would look at some wonderful leaders. I look forward to working with him or her."

Said Keeton: "Any wounds that are there I think she will be very capable of healing."


Pride and non-prejudice

Woodward congratulates Julie Dhossche, School of Medicine graduate, during commencement 2015. Dhossche won the Waller S. Leathers Award for the medical student with the highest academic average for four years.
Woodward congratulates Julie Dhossche, School of Medicine graduate, during commencement 2015. Dhossche won the Waller S. Leathers Award for the medical student with the highest academic average for four years.

The news went viral. In Kansas, Keeton's relatives read it in the Wichita paper.

At home, congratulations poured in, including from the second woman in Mississippi to be elected state treasurer.

"Dr. Woodward is not only an incredible doctor, but an amazing mother, and an all-around great friend," Lynn Fitch said in a statement.

"She has the ability to bring people together for the betterment of an organization and I truly believe UMMC is going to thrive under her leadership."

With Woodward's rise to the Medical Center's top post, "two of the most powerful advocates for the health of Mississippians are women," Keeton said, referring also to Dr. Mary Currier ('83), State Health Officer.

"I think it's great that the health officer and the vice chancellor are both female," said Currier, adding that she looks forward to working with Woodward, especially on prevention and population health.

"But I'm much more interested in having the right person for the job," she said, "and I really believe she's the right person."

That a woman now holds that job is a "point of pride" for Woodward, Rutledge said. "And she has mentioned that it's a point of pride for many women, but she doesn't want it to be about that." 

So far, it hasn't been, Rutledge said. "Women have been well accepted as leaders in this state. And I would put her up against anybody, male or female."

Like young LouAnn Heath, she still wants to know how things work and - as with that lifeless pig on the farm, or those snakes on the side of County Road 101 - why they no longer work.

"She is quick to admit if she doesn't know something, and asks you to explain it," Keeton said. "She is not afraid to ask anybody questions."

She's not afraid, period, he said.


Dr. LouAnn Woodward still loves books and keeps a basketful of future reads in her library at home, like patients in a waiting room. Except they don't wait very long.

After finishing "The Presidents Club" recently, she dove into two more: "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," and David Brooks' "The Road to Character."

If you can judge a person by the cover of his or her books, you may also turn to the people who helped nurture her love of reading.

"She has always treated everybody right," said her father, who never had to sell his land to put her through medical school.

Her mother, whose cancer was detected a couple of years ago, put it this way: "I don't know what I would have done without her when I was diagnosed.

"We didn't know who to call, what to do. So we asked LouAnn. She said, 'Let's do this, this and this.' She takes charge. She's had a plan all her life.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm the child and she's the parent, because she has everything together. She has always had it together."