Putting People Back Together: Dr. Thomas Duffy (’08)
January 12, 2023
“Getting people back on their feet has been an interest of mine since grade school,” says Dr. Thomas Duffy (’08). “Whenever there was a field trip in the woods, my mom always sent me with an anti-itching nettle spray and some band-aids. They were for me, but I ended up using them on friends. It was fun to say, ‘I can put you back together!’”
Some three decades later, Dr. Duffy continues to put people “back together,” albeit in a more particular way and with a different set of tools — as a dentist and the owner of Peninsula Family Dentistry in Gig Harbor, Washington.
When he was growing up some 50 miles northeast in Redmond, Dr. Duffy pursued a diverse set of hobbies that all involved precision and attention to detail, such as computer programming, playing the piano, and photography. Combined with his delight in caring for people, medicine always seemed like a plausible career choice. Yet rather than pursuing a premed major at a conventional school, he preferred to seek an undergraduate education that would give him a solid foundation steeped in his Catholic faith.
“My dad was keeping an eye on Catholic higher education and didn’t have much love for any of the established Catholic institutions as they matured,” he recalls. So, father and son visited Thomas Aquinas College to see if it was any better — and “it was such a world apart!” says Dr. Duffy. “It was beautiful, the people were friendly, and the class discussions had an air of tranquility and rigor at the same time.”
During his years as a student on the California campus, Dr. Duffy kept an open mind about God’s plans for his future.
Then, while visiting his orthodontist one Christmas break, inspiration struck. “My orthodontist asked me, ‘What are you planning to do when you finish school?’ I told him, ‘Maybe cardiology or surgery.’ Then he asked, ‘Have you looked at dentistry?’”
Intrigued by the suggestion, Dr. Duffy did his research and liked what he found. “Many people go into dentistry thinking it’s just easy medical school, but once they get there, they realize that the manual work really requires some artistic vision to produce the sculptures that you need to be a successful dentist,” he explains. He had found his dream career — sufficiently curative and artistically precise.
Dr. Duffy graduated from the University of Washington School of Dentistry in 2014 and soon after joined a group of dentists in Shelton, Washington. Within his ever-developing field, he found himself calling on his analytical training from the College, particularly the habit of having constant recourse to first principles. “For instance, many people told me that I would never do another denture, it’s all implants now,” he says. “But it turns out that finding success in complex denture rehab — replacing all the teeth at once, fixing them down to implants fused to the jawbone — depends entirely on the skills you developed setting traditional dentures. The principles remain the same.”
In the last three years, Dr. Duffy ventured beyond the security of an established practice to found his own business, a rare move for dentists these days. Obstacles notwithstanding, it has been a tremendous success. “We have grown to full-time at a bustling pace, with lots of new patients coming in,” he says. “I could see the hand of Providence guiding it.”
Contributing to that success were the communication skills refined by the Discussion Method at Thomas Aquinas College. “Learning how to listen and take what people say, grow it, develop it, and present it back in a tactful way has been very important,” he says, especially for developing strong relationships with his patients. In the midst of his professional success, Dr. Duffy credits the College with nourishing the spiritual life that guides him as a husband, a father of five, and a doctor.
“Recognizing our utter dependence on God’s grace had its foundations at TAC,” he reflects. “I have been depending on it so much the last few years.” By God’s grace, he still puts people back together.