By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Access to quality health care in rural areas is not just something Chante Ruffin, M.D., talks about—it’s something she works to deliver.
Ruffin is the founder and director of Heritage Pediatrics, a clinic in Alexander City, Alabama, which she opened in 2019.
“There are not a lot of health care options and we need more doctors in our underserved communities; that’s one of the reasons I decided to settle in Alexander City after my residency was over,” she said. “You’re not going to go there unless you want to go there.”
As a doctor, Ruffin, 40, is familiar with small towns, and that’s what helped her eventually open own clinic. While working briefly at a clinic in Sylacauga, Alabama, she reached out to friends from medical school and started getting ideas about opening her own practice. After her mother passed away in March 2018, Ruffin put her all into establishing her clinic, and she had a lot of support from people in Alexander City who helped her with a timeline of things to work on each month. She got approved for a loan and opened Heritage Pediatrics in December 2019 at Alexander City’s Russell Medical Center.
“I had a lot of people rooting for me,” she said. “I feel like it was all a part of God’s plan, and that is what made it easy for me. Having already been in this town for eight or nine years, I knew the patients would come and see me, so the transition wasn’t hard at all.”
Ruffin sees about 15 patients a day and provides pediatric services for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, minor injuries, common colds, and other health-related issues. She has a staff of three full-time employees, a nurse, medical assistant, and a receptionist. When COVID-19 hit in March, she and her team had to adapt.
“Patients were afraid to come into the office because they had a fear of getting sick, so we did some educational videos on our Facebook page to show how we’re handling operations at the office, separating sick and well visits,” she said. “We were down for only about three weeks in our patient numbers, but they picked back up. With my office being located in the hospital, all patients are screened before they enter the building, and each one is given a mask before they even get to me.”
Ruffin was born in Columbiana, Alabama, and her family moved to Birmingham when she was 3 years old; she grew up with her mother, stepfather, and three older siblings. Though she is the youngest child, Ruffin said she wouldn’t consider herself spoiled.
“But I definitely fit the role of annoying little sister because I would tell on my siblings when they would do things,” she recalled.
Ruffin knew at a young age that she wanted to be a pediatrician after a visit to her pediatrician, Robert Smith, M.D., who is still practicing in Birmingham.
“[I remember thinking], ‘This is really cool! This man is a doctor, and this is something I think I can do,’” Ruffin said. “I have always loved being around kids. I was the neighborhood babysitter, and I kept my cousins all the time. That love for kids combined with me liking science a lot in high school is what solidified that decision.”
Ruffin attended Woodlawn High School, where she was active in the marching band, academic societies, math club, and student government association (SGA), and was a straight-A student. She received a full scholarship to Stillman College, a historically black college and university (HBCU) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she majored in biology, pre-med.
“I spent every summer during college attending activities that would increase my chances of being accepted into medical school. I always did something to keep going and increase my learning,” she said. “I studied hard, but I also stayed active. I was affiliated with two non-Greek organizations, was part of the SGA, and was on the academic bowl team for four years. I was also Miss Freshman, and in my senior year I was First Attendant to Miss Stillman.”
After graduating from Stillman in 2001, she went to medical school at the University of South Alabama School of Medicine in Mobile, Alabama.
Accustomed to always being at the top of her class, Ruffin got a wake-up call in med school.
“Everybody was from the top of their class, … everybody was smart, and it was a big adjustment for me,” she said. “I had to learn to study a different way. It was a struggle, and I met some difficulties in the first year of medical school.”
Ruffin said she repeated her first year, which was challenging because she had never really failed at anything before.
“It was a huge blow to me, but I said, ‘You’re either going to do it or you’re not.’ So, I picked myself up and said, ‘OK, you won’t get me twice,’” she said.
To avoid making the same mistake twice, Ruffin decided to take advantage of every resource available to her.
“I went to the professor [of that challenging class] to figure out what I needed to do,” she said. “I also had very good classmates who were willing to answer questions and tutor me in what I needed help with. We all just rallied and stuck together because I think there were four or five of us that had to repeat. We formed study groups and burned the midnight oil.”
Ruffin didn’t make the mistake a second time. She graduated from in 2006 and did her residency at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, where she was selected to be chief resident.
In that role, “I finally got to be a doctor and got to know all there is about pediatrics. I enjoyed it,” she said.
“[Being chief resident] was more of an administrative role, and I was in charge of all the residents below me, coordinating all of the schedules.”
After completing her residency in 2010, Ruffin was offered her first job in Alexander City and worked at Pediatrics Associates for eight years.
Ruffin and her husband, Raheem, have four children: Ryann, 14; Myles, 10; Ryleigh, 9; and Cayden, 4. With a family and busy schedule, Ruffin said it is important for her to practice self-care.
“I schedule time to get a massage or a manicure and pedicure. When I truly have free time, though, I enjoy being at home and being able to just relax,” she said.
Ruffin has now come full circle in the Alexander City community. She serves on the board of the United Way of Lake Martin, where she is president this year; she is active with the parent-teacher organizations at her children’s schools; and she was recently appointed to the Alexander City Board of Education.
“When I had my interview for the seat [on the school board], I said, ‘I’m in a unique position because I’m a parent in the school system and I’m also a pediatrician, so I feel I’m able to bring the expertise that is needed when it comes to children. I think it is going to be a rewarding and fulfilling position, so I’m excited about working with the school board,’” she recalled, adding that being on that school board fits in with being a part of the overall community.
“Practicing in a small town . . . I form deeper relationships with my families as opposed to in a larger city, where I may only see them in an office setting,” Ruffin said. “Here, I am able to connect with them outside the office. I see them play sports and perform in their dance recitals. I celebrate with them in all of their achievements. Everyone knows me, and when I visit the schools or even go to get my groceries, kids run up and give me hugs. It makes my heart smile.”