A few minutes with Steve Ruff, dental lab technician
Steve Ruff is a man of few words. And when he does speak, well, he’s not about to use them talking about himself. His days are spent in a lab tucked into the far corner of the Center for Maxillofacial Prosthodontics at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry. He sits on a rolling blue clinic chair, poring over a workspace dotted with acrylics, wax and denture teeth. Stone dental casts tell the patients’ stories: traumatic accidents, gunshot wounds, cancer treatment, tumors. Ruff’s work helps forms the basis for their healing and for their new start.
During his 42 years at TAMBCD, he’s become an expert at complex cases, performing the dental lab work for advanced implant restorations. Ruff’s broad scope of work ranges from conventional dentures to palatal obturators made to cover a hole in the mouth left from cancer surgery. Daily lab procedures consist of everything from temporary crowns to complex implant-supported fixed and detachable prostheses, and from casting gold to digital CAD/CAM design.
But of course, he won’t be the first to tell you that. His wife, Debbie Ruff, purchasing manager at TAMBCD, shares some achievements of which she is especially proud: a plate he made that fit over the removed section of a child’s skull; the appliance that snapped into a feeding tube used to nourish a premature baby; a thin layer of acrylic applied to tungsten, used to protect a patient’s eyes during radiation treatment.
But what about when a case is so challenging that a course of action just isn’t obvious? Even then Ruff’s answer is unassuming.
“I have to think about it for a while before I begin,” he responds.
Dr. Jorge Gonzalez, assistant professor and director of the Center for Maxillofacial Prosthodontics, takes a seat in a chair next to Ruff, offering his perspective.
“You are such a humble guy, Steve,” Gonzalez says. “You always find the answer one way or another.”
While Ruff isn’t one to seek attention, his co-workers are more than up to the task of pursuing recognition on his behalf. In late January, Ruff learned he is one of just 25 staff members throughout Texas A&M University to receive the President’s Meritorious Service Award, now in its 29th year.
Suzanne Verma, assistant professor and anaplastologist at TAMBCD, nominated Ruff for the award. Just as remarkable as the speed and accuracy of his dental lab services, she says, is his uncanny ability to remember even the most obscure dental implant components from years past.
Verma offers an explanation: “Steve’s knowledge of implant dentistry is not something that is taught in traditional training or that one can acquire from a CE course. It comes from his vast experience of nearly 43 years working side by side with a number of world-renowned dentists and physicians and problem solving to find solutions for patients both prior to and during the introduction of osseointegration.
“I can’t even list the number of times that Steve and I have had impromptu brainstorming sessions, trying to figure out how to approach the laboratory procedures associated with a difficult maxillofacial case.”
Ruff’s career at TAMBCD began in August 1973. It started when dental school administrators called Texas State Technical College, looking for lab technicians. Ruff, then a recent graduate of the Waco-based college’s dental lab program, was a natural recommendation.
Dental lab technology came as second nature to Ruff — he merged a desire to work with his hands and a childhood spent frequently visiting the dentist’s office — but it’s the vocation’s inherent rewards that have kept him here.
“You make something out of nothing and help people have a better life,” he says.
The president’s award serves as culmination of a career well spent — Ruff retires Feb. 29, the day of the award ceremony in College Station.
There will be more fishing in the days to come — catching crappie and bass with his brother near their dad’s East Texas farm. And no doubt more travel awaits. Ruff’s in-home dental lab business will continue for one Dallas-area maxillofacial prosthodontist, and, on occasion, for highly complex cases at TAMBCD.
Debbie Ruff, also retiring at the end of February, sums up the couple’s sentiment on the transition.
“It is so hard for us to separate ourselves from TAMBCD,” she says. “We are Baylor born and bred.”