As medical director of Occupational Health at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Dr. Geraldine Ruffa is often the person who decides if an employee is well enough to return to work, or, if an applicant is healthy enough to qualify for a certain job.
Ruffa, who practices at the Pequot Health Center in Groton, knows that each decision she makes can have a ripple effect through the life of the patient and his or her family, and she takes her work very seriously.
“In each case, you’ve done your research and you usually know when to sign off and when not to sign off,” Ruffa says. “We try to be consistent. Some cases are black and white, but sometimes things are grey. We try to be reasonable in those grey areas. In some cases, if a condition is well controlled, often they can be qualified or certified.”
For example, deciding whether or not an individual is able to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle can be challenging.
“We have to make a decision on whether they’re medically fit to drive,” she says. “You really don’t want to deny someone a job, but your first responsibility is to public safety in this highly regulated situation.”
The variety seen in occupational medicine is extensive and keeps the field interesting.
“We do everything from drug testing to specialty exams (such as merchant mariner exams and diving physicals) to surveillance physicals on workers exposure to asbestos and lead,” she says. “And we still get to do some emergency medicine such as suturing and acute injuries.”
Occupational health patients come from hundreds of companies, large and small, Ruffa explains.
“We see workers from Pfizer, Electric Boat, local industries and municipalities, including local firefighters and police officers,” she said.
Ruffa brings to every decision she makes a wealth of knowledge and credentials. She is board certified in both internal and occupational medicine, and she holds both a medical degree and a chemical engineering degree from Yale University.
She also holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of New Haven (which, incidentally, is where she met her husband), and a master of public health from the Medical College of Wisconsin. She was an undergraduate at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven.
A native of Ansonia, Ruffa had a residency at Waterbury Hospital after she graduated from Yale, but she came to L+M in 1991, working for 10 years in the Emergency Department at Pequot before moving to Occupational Health in 2001. She became director in 2003.
Ruffa now lives in Rhode Island and she says her main hobbies are spending time with her family and rooting for her favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. She has two children, both of whom are in college.
Among her special interests is medical clearance for divers, and the occupational health center has protocols for commercial, scientific and public safety divers. Dealing with the physiological demands of the underwater environment poses special concerns for both diver and medical examiner.
One important aspect of occupational medicine – helping someone identify and improve a risky health condition – goes to the heart of what Dr. Ruffa loves about her job.
“For a lot of these things, the testing we do can be an impetus for someone to take better care of their health,” she says. “We’ve had people, for example, who had to be tested for sleep apnea in order to obtain their commercial driver certificate. They might not have been happy about it then, but, sometimes, afterwards, they will come back and thank us, because it changed their life. They’ll come back and realize we’ve helped them, and that’s kind of nice.”
To learn more about Dr. Ruffa, click here.