In her Stillwater, Minnesota, office, Laura Dean, M.D., recalled one of the most pivotal moments of her life. On Jan. 10, 1984, her 18th birthday, the kitchen phone rang at her family home in Roseville. On the line was Dr. Tom Tommet, University of St. Thomas Physics Department chair, informing the teen she was one of two recipients of the school’s first fulltuition science scholarship.
“It was a life-changing event for me,” said Dean. “Not only was I now going to college, which was not necessarily a given in my family, but I was going to St. Thomas.”
She explained: “I had three siblings – two who had degenerative brain disease, which was ultimately terminal. I grew up helping care for my siblings as their conditions worsened. I was the healthy kid. My parents thought it was great I was a good student, but we didn’t talk a lot about college.”
A self-proclaimed “blue-collar kid,” Dean became the first in her family to attend college. At St. Thomas, she took pre-med classes, was a dedicated member of the track team and was involved in student activities before graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1988. Then, it was on to medical school.
Dean, who has practiced medicine for more than 20 years, is chair of the OB-GYN department at Stillwater Medical Group and recently took the reins as chief of staff at Lakeview Hospital.
Since becoming a doctor, Dean has delivered more than 3,000 babies and said it’s “phenomenal” to be involved at significant points in people’s lives.
“With well care, pregnancy care and surgical care, you really get to take care of women through much of their lifetime,” she said. “I have patients I started taking care of when they were teenagers. I saw them go to college, I saw them get married and I’m delivering their babies now. Women I’ve delivered babies for have kids who are in college with mine. It’s an amazing thing. It’s a real gift to be able to be a part of people’s lives in that way.”
In October, Dean played that momentous role for Jack and Kacie ’13 Youso, who had their first child, Emmett.
The Yousos first met Dean when they arrived at Lakeview Hospital. Kacie was in labor and her main provider was out of town. Dean was the doctor on call.
“She was serious and used her ‘track coach voice’ as she calls it when I needed to work harder or when I was giving up,” Kacie said. “She would look at me with a face that said, ‘I think you can do better than this’ when the pushing stage was going longer than I had wanted and was taking more strength than I had.
“Once Emmett was delivered, she switched gears and was incredibly loving,” Kacie continued. “As I was sitting in the hospital bed after delivery, completely in shock and out of touch with reality, I remember her coming to the side of my bed and holding my hand and giving me a side hug. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it didn’t matter and it was enough to make an impression on me.
“She made me feel like I had finished the race successfully even though it wasn’t as I had planned. She didn’t care that I wasn’t the strongest woman or that I gave up during labor at multiple points; she still showed me love.”
“The most important thing for me is providing compassionate care for patients where they are and for what they need,” Dean said. “I want to make sure the care is patient-centered and that I’m somebody who patients can trust to take good care of them, can trust to care about them, and can help them in good times and in bad.”
“Dean will do anything for her patients,” said Dr. Andy Dorwart ’85, president of Stillwater Medical Group and chief medical officer of Lakeview Health System. “Whatever needs to be done, she’ll go the extra mile. She has a lot of empathy and compassion for her patients. They know they can trust her and she’ll be looking out for their best interests and help them out any way she can.”
Dr. Nicole Nelson ’00, part of Dean’s OB-GYN team, calls Dean a mentor and often asks for her counsel on patient care.
“She is someone who always knows just what to say and when to say it,” Nelson said. “I will often come to her when I have a difficult situation and don’t know how to communicate it.”
Ted Wegleitner ’94 MBA, Lakeview Hospital president and Lakeview Health System CEO, said it’s important to have a strong leader such as Dean when planning for the future, especially when it comes to obstetrics and gynecology.
“Strategically, it’s really important for a health system like ours to have a really great obstetrics practice because that’s a way we can attract new, young families,” Wegleitner said. “Having a great team of doctors, word of mouth gets around that this is the place to come and it’s really great. I think she has the vision for the kind of women’s clinic and women’s center here in the hospital that we want to have.”
Even though it’s been nearly three decades since she graduated from St. Thomas, Dean is proud of her undergraduate achievements: summa cum laude graduate, Delta Epsilon Sigma Honor Society vice president, All-American honors in track and field, member of the Aquinas Scholars and Tommie of the Year.
“I received the outstanding senior award from my university and that’s something I’m so proud of that it stays on my curriculum vitae even though I’m 51 years old,” she said.
Last fall marked the 40th anniversary of coeducation at St. Thomas, and Dean remembers helping with the 10th anniversary during her junior year. She noted that few women were involved in math and science when she first arrived at the university in the early ’80s.
“[The university] was just starting to develop programs to promote women in science, engineering and medicine,” she said. “I can’t say I was a pioneer, but I was on the early end of a lot more women going to college, especially in science and math.”
When asked if she feels she had to work harder than her male peers, Dean smiled.
“I worked harder than anybody I knew,” she said. “I had to work hard because I had goals and I had things I wanted to do. There might have been folks who didn’t need to crack books, but I did. I cracked the books very hard. And it paid off.”
Along with serious study habits, she was a student-athlete under the watchful eye of Joe Sweeney, St. Thomas’ head coach for track and field and women’s cross country. During her first year on the team, she was part of the 4×400 meter relay team awarded All-American honors. Being part of the track team, she said, was another essential part of her Tommie experience.
“Going out for the track team didn’t have anything to do with the classroom, but it had everything to do with the classroom because it was about discipline, teamwork and goals,” said Dean, who asked Sweeney to write a letter of recommendation when she applied to Mayo Medical School (now known as the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine).
“The dean of the medical school said, ‘I’m not supposed to show you your letters of recommendation, but I’m going to tell you something. The letter that your coach wrote was one of the best letters I have ever seen,’” Dean said. “He said it was very revealing about my work ethic and how I was as a teammate. He said these things are so important in medicine because you care for patients as part of a team.”
Sweeney remembers Dean as a motivated student athlete with a great competitive spirit and giving nature. When her science labs overlapped with track practice, Sweeney would leave a workout regimen taped to her locker so she could practice after her classes.
“In coaching you get to know people in a completely different way than you would as a professor,” Sweeney said. “I see students every day in various situations. I see them interact with their teammates. Everything Laura did was impressive. She was definitely a rising star.”
Dean and her husband, Matt, have known each other since kindergarten. Matt did his two-year pre-architectural studies at St. Thomas before earning his degree from the University of Minnesota. He now works as a state representative.
The two were married in 1991 at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas and have three children. Their middle son, Jack, is a sophomore at St. Thomas studying computer science.
“I started thinking about my own experience and felt Jack would really benefit from the closeknit community,” Dean said. “And also the balance – he could do scientific study, but he’s also a good writer and likes to read.”
Dean is quick to sing the praises of a liberal arts education. While excelling in science during her time at St. Thomas, she also loved classes such as 18th Century British Literature and Architectural History. That mix of classes was key, she said.
“Medicine is science and art and humanity all wrapped together,” she said. “Parts of my education really helped with expression. It’s important to be able to talk to a patient about their cancer diagnosis in a compassionate way. It’s important to weigh the important issues. I took Biomedical Ethics with Professor Ron Hamel, where we were churning through those thoughts and significant decisions at 20 years old. So then, when I was in Rochester at Mayo taking care of patients and studying and learning those things, I had a basis and I could talk about these things from a human perspective.
“As somebody who wants to be a good mom to my three kids, who wants to be a good wife, I think finding balance is challenging,” she said. “St. Thomas is a place that really instilled the importance of balance. It also taught me that it’s worth working hard and putting your heart and soul into something that you care about doing and to make a difference for other people. That’s definitely worth it.”
From the science scholarship that allowed her to attend college years ago, she has been working diligently to advance the field of medicine through her dedication to patients during pivotal times in their own lives.