Dr. Thomas A. Huff: A Life Invested in Diabetes Care

(L-R) Dr. Tom Huff, Dr. Jennifer White, and David Brown (physician's assistant) study an X-ray and discuss metabollic bone disease  MCG website
MCG website
(L-R) Dr. Tom Huff, Dr. Jennifer White, and David Brown (physician's assistant) study an X-ray and discuss metabollic bone disease

Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.  In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:4-5 New Century Version).

            Dr. Thomas A. Huff has invested his life in the lives of others throughout his medical career. 

            His roots are in the small town of Forest, Mississippi, between Meridian and Jackson.  His father had to move to Washington, D. C., to find work during the Great Depression.  There, he worked his way through Georgetown University and earned his law degree from George Washington University.  He got a job with the Supreme Court and was instrumental in moving the Court's library to their new building completed in 1935. 

            After World War II broke out, Mr. Huff enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned as an officer.  He served on the staff of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Guam and was the first U.S. officer stationed in Kyoto when the United States occupied Japan.  After the War, he joined his family in Forest and settled down into practicing law following in his father's footsteps.

            In Forest, the family was active members in the Presbyterian Church.  Dr. Huff's life of service is rooted in his family and faith.

            Dr. Huff left home never to return to do his undergraduate work at Rhodes (Presbyterian) College in Memphis.  His studies in the Bible courses offered at the college were foundational to his theological formation which served as the basis of his medical practice. 

            In 1961, he graduated from the Emory School of Medicine and stayed there for two more years of residency.  The United States exempted medical students from the military draft under the Berry Plan, but after finishing medical school, the new doctor had to repay with two years of military service.

            Dr. Huff was ordered to serve at the hospital on the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and lived only five doors down from his wife's (Ann) parents.  The hospital had a full compliment of medical and surgical specialists.  Dr. Huff was the junior doctor with lots of senior doctors surrounding him.  He recalls, "I learned a lot.  It was a wonderful two years."

            After his discharge in 1965, he completed a fellowship in endocrinology at Duke Medical School rejecting an appeal from Emory to study cardiology.  Dr. Huff had become fascinated with endocrinology at Emory.  Exciting and new intellectually stimulating discoveries in the study of diabetes whetted his curiosity.  New technology in measuring insulin along with a new understanding of diabetes made his two years at Duke thoroughly enjoyable.

            At the time, scientists did not know the structure of insulin.  They knew it was a protein, but a way of measuring insulin had not been discovered.  To measure a molecule, it has to be isolated.

            A profound discovery from experiments of injecting insulin into mice helped solve the mystery of measuring insulin.  In her New York lab, Rosalyn Yalow won a Nobel Prize in 1977 for her work.  In layman's terms, she found that insulin (manufactured in the pancreas) was secreted into the bloodstream in bursts with meals and continues a slow secretion after the burst. 

            Dr. Yallow's landmark discovery later led to the A1c blood test developed in Tehran, Iran, which is critical in the data used in diabetes management. 

            At Duke, Dr. Huff worked in the lab studying the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secreted from the pituitary gland which stimulates the adrenal gland.  All of these new discoveries were foundational for today's treatment of diabetes, and Dr.  Huff was on the front line of all these revolutionary and fascinating findings.

            Dr. Huff was recruited by Dr. Jay Bollet, chair of medicine at the Medical College Georgia (MCG) and Dr. Ted Branson.  MCG needed an endocrinologist specializing in diabetes to compliment Dr. Robert Greenblat and his pioneering work in reproductive endocrinology.  Dr. Huff was the first endocrinologist to come on the faculty of MCG in January 1971 with his specialty.

            There had been an ongoing debate in the medical treatment for diabetes for decades.  On one side were those who argued whether to even treat diabetics.  "Just keep them alive as long as you can and handle the complications such as blindness, kidney disease, and neuropathy as they occur."  The other side argued that perhaps tight control of diabetes; i.e., keeping blood sugars as close to normal as possible, might prevent or reverse complications from the disease.

            In the late 1940's, Dr. Robert Jackson at the University of Missouri set out to prove the hypothesis that tight control could reduce and even reverse complications.  He recruited children suffering with diabetes and their families to participate in his study.  He secured commitments from the children and their parents to monitor glucose readings and adhere to a strict dietary regimen. 

            Kidney biopsies were taken on the children and showed kidney damage from diabetes.  Two years after the study began, kidney biopsies showed that the lesions had disappeared.  Diabetic complications in the kidney could be reversed with tight control!           

             At first, the medical community sloughed off these findings.  But gradually, more and more scientists and doctors began to wonder if indeed tight glucose control could reverse and even prevent complications from diabetes.

            Dr. Huff took the side of the debate that tight control could prevent complications.  But, he and others who believed this had no real substantiating scientific proof.  Something had to be done.  The average life expectancy for a diabetic in the late 1960's was 30 years after the onset of the disease coupled with all kinds of complications. 

            Out of Dr. Huff's Christ-like nature of being interested in the lives of others and improving the life of his patients, he and others made several trips to Washington D.C., in the late 1970's to lobby Congress for funds to prove their hypothesis. 

            Dr. Huff went to classes to learn how to lobby.  He had an inside track, too.  His lawyer dad was good friends with Mississippi Senator John Stennis and that friendship opened the door for Dr. Huff to meet with Senator Stennis and the two Senators from Georgia, Herman Talmadge and Sam Nunn. 

            The efforts of Dr. Huff and others resulted in Congress appropriating over $165 million dollars to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT).   This study was the largest, most comprehensive diabetes study ever conducted and involved 1,441 volunteers (of which I was one) with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and 29 medical centers in the United States and Canada. 

            The findings from the DCCT (1983-1993) were the most important since the discovery of insulin.  The study showed that keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible slows the onset and progression of the eye, kidney, and nerve damage caused by diabetes.  In fact, it demonstrated that any sustained lowering of blood sugar helps even if the person has a history of poor control. 

(For a complete report of the DCCT see http://www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/control/ )

            As a result of this study, diabetics who maintain consistent blood sugar control to as normal as possible can expect to live a fairly normal life with a normal lifespan with few diabetic complications.  The conclusions were irrefutable and changed the whole landscape of diabetes treatment and care throughout the world.

            Dr. Tom Huff invests in the lives of diabetics out of his Christian faith.  His life's work is seen in diabetics like me having lived thirty-nine years with Type-1, insulin dependent diabetes.  I should be blind, have kidney disease, nerve damage, or even dead.  But, I am very much alive at age 59 enjoying a quality of life and health from his care and encouragement in helping me manage tight control over diabetes. 

            Diabetes is reaching epic proportions among the world's population.  The number of diabetics in the world is estimated at 190 million, of which 20 million are in the USA.            

           On behalf of all of his patients and myself along with the millions who benefit from the DCCT findings, thank you, Dr. Tom Huff for investing your life in the suffering of others. 

            You can read Dr. Huff's latest publication that he co-authored titled "Why a Medical Career and What Makes a Good Doctor? Beliefs of Incoming United States Medical Students" at http://www.educationforhealth.net/articles/subviewnew.asp?ArticleID=331

The conclusion at the end of the article is especially worth reading. 

Read my other blog for Dr. Huff's advice to families and family members living with a chronic disease.

http://chronicle.augusta.com/blogs/whiteboard

Dan White is pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA.  danwhite5868@yahoo.com

 

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