Cheryl Woodard, offering encouragement and a helping hand in the workplace

To her colleagues, Duke Cardiovascular Research Center staff assistant Cheryl Woodard embodies what it means to be a part of a team. If a task needs to be done quickly and efficiently, Woodard gets it done. If you need a friend, she is there to listen. Through her three decades at Duke, she has shown to herself and others that no goal is unachievable.

Her first position at Duke was as a medical filer for the Division of Cardiology in electrophysiology with Victor Behar, MD, who is now a professor emeritus of medicine.

After working for two months, the staff assistant who supported Dr. Behar went on medical leave. This change pushed Woodard to assume more responsibilities in the office as a medical secretary.  

Carl Chmielewski, a cardiology administrative assistant and longtime colleague of Woodard’s, remembers his first impressions of her on the day she was hired.

“I think it was just the way Cheryl carried herself. Me and the manager at the time knew she was something, but didn’t know what,” he said. “Back then, we were all about giving people a try. If it didn’t work, they moved on. Using that theory, almost everybody we hired stayed with us until either they retired or moved on up.”

Chmielewski and Woodard worked together for more than 15 years when Cardiology staff assistants were first classified as “medical secretaries.”

When she was given the staff assistant position at Duke CVRC, Chmielewski mentored her on the logistics of assembling research labs. At the beginning, the pair coordinated two labs renovations together. When it was time for them to coordinate the third lab construction, Woodard was able to complete the tasks on her own.

“The most important thing in this busy world, I think she pays attention to details and we’re all busy. If Cheryl doesn’t understand something, she isn’t afraid to ask for help,” said Chmielewski. “I think that’s important in this day and age. If you don’t understand, you have to speak up.”

Now, her tasks each day are always changing as she supports Duke CVRC Director Howard Rockman, MD, and Executive Director Maria Rapoza, PhD

Woodard’s responsibilities include a variety of duties, from organizing meetings to overseeing room renovations.  

"Even now that she moved to a different department, if I can’t figure something out I can call [Cheryl] and she’ll walk me through it or she’ll invite me to come to her office.”

 Beverly Carden, Electrophysiology staff assistant 

In May Duke CVRC collaborated for the first time with Stanford University to host the Duke-Stanford Cardiovascular Research Symposium, which was a major event for the center this year.

Attendees were able to learn about the latest research in cardiology, which included atrial fibrillation, cardiovascular regeneration, and heart failure. The symposium also featured a medical segment on the Project Baseline study, which is a large collaborative health study between Duke, Stanford, and Verily (Google Life Sciences).

The CVRC team began planning this symposium last year. It was a year filled with weekly administrative meetings and cautious planning.

“Because this was the first one, we wanted to make sure that all details were covered. We wanted to be sure that every conceivable need that may arise, we had it covered,” said Woodard.  “Our meetings were great because we were able to keep abreast and stay on track of what tasks needed to be done to have a successful symposium.”

Woodard’s colleagues refer to her as a mentor, a friend, and a leader.

Electrophysiology staff assistant Beverly “Shea” Carden has known Woodard for 10 years. The two met when Carden began her position for the Duke electrophysiology staff team, which Woodard was a part of. When Carden needed guidance on staff assistant duties and procedures, Woodard stepped in as Carden’s mentor.

Carden describes Woodard as “approachable” and “knowledgeable.” She said Woodard was always helping and training others around the office when she worked for electrophysiology.

“She didn’t even have any kind of leadership role, but I always advocated that she should’ve been given some kind of leadership position because she was so knowledgeable and she was training so many people,” said Carden. “Even now that she moved to a different department, if I can’t figure something out I can call her and she’ll walk me through it or she’ll invite me to come to her office.”

Over time, Woodard and Carden formed a close friendship. Woodard, Carden, and a group of other women colleagues who used to work in electrophysiology still meet with each other for lunch, drinks after work, and everything in between.

“Over 10 years, there’s a lot that goes on with life. Like personal or family issues,” Carden said. “There was a time when I was going through a stressful period in my life…With Cheryl, she could tell I wasn’t OK and something wasn’t right. She helped put me in check so that I didn’t let that attitude go over into work.”

Taking the Road Back to Education

It took Woodard more than 20 years to graduate from N.C. Central University with her Bachelor’s of Science in Biology. Between tribulations at home and duties at work, it wasn’t easy to finish her studies.

She initially enrolled at NCCU immediately after graduating from Durham’s Hillside High School in 1983. Woodard’s initial intention was to study music before settling with biology. Although she loved playing the piano, there wasn’t room for her expectations for career growth.

“I found the job outlook in that field to be unsatisfactory and the compensation wasn’t appealing,” said Woodard. “So reassessing my career goal, I changed my major to biology. Since I had been working in the healthcare field, I felt a degree in biology would be rewarding and beneficial in my career development.”  

While she was still attending NCCU, Woodard put her studies aside after her eldest daughter was born prematurely with cerebral palsy at Durham Regional Hospital. That same day, her daughter was transferred to NC Baptist Hospital where she was hospitalized for several months.

“Attempting to go to classes and commute back and forth to Winston-Salem to make sure she was getting the proper care that she needed proved to be overly taxing,” she said.  Years later, Woodard returned to NCCU intermittently taking classes.

In 2012, Woodard decided she no longer wanted to leave her education behind. After speaking with Howard Rockman, MD, and her former supervisor Mitzi Scarlett, Woodard was given a flexible work schedule that allowed her to go back to school again.

When she stepped back into the classroom for good it was pretty overwhelming. She had learn to juggle her studies with working full-time, supporting her children (with one in college), and her schedule as a musician for five choirs at her church.

She said her mind wasn’t as refreshed as when she first enrolled, but she was more focused and determined to do what needed to be done to graduate.

“It was no easy journey, but I did it,” Woodard said. “Dr. Rockman along with my family and friends always gave me encouraging words letting me know how proud they were of me. “

Until this day, her colleagues still continue to be one of Woodard’s biggest supporters.

“Cheryl is all together. That’s the easiest way to describe her,” said Chmielewski. ”She likes what she’s doing, she likes where she’s at, and I would consider her the whole package. If we could clone Cheryl, we would. She’s great."

This story was written by Tia Mitchell, communications intern for the Department of Medicine.