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Breast imaging’s Huff dedicated to precision

Sep. 29, 2016, 10:13 AM

A series of beautiful photographs of turquoise waves curling over a sandy beach sits above the desk of John Huff, M.D. An accomplished photographer whose work has been exhibited at shows in Nashville as well as regional invitational shows in Louisville, Birmingham, and the International Center for Photography in New York, Huff said most people think the framed photos are all the same image. But each photo is slightly different and to him, it is the details that matter.

John Huff, M.D., is chief of the Section of Breast Imaging, medical director of Breast Imaging Services and imaging director of the Vanderbilt Breast Clinic. (photo by Anne Rayner)
John Huff, M.D., is chief of the Section of Breast Imaging, medical director of Breast Imaging Services and imaging director of the Vanderbilt Breast Clinic. (photo by Anne Rayner)

As chief of the Section of Breast Imaging, medical director of Breast Imaging Services and imaging director of the Vanderbilt Breast Clinic, Huff is devoted to detecting and analyzing the small details that can mean the difference between life and death for patients with breast cancer.

This deep curiosity about the world is a hallmark of his life. The youngest of six children born in Kennesaw, Georgia, Huff enjoyed rural life, especially horses. His mother, a lawyer, also adopted exotic animals.

“There was a camel or two in there and we had a series of monkeys and macaques. She liked to dress them up and have them eat dinner with us, which generally didn’t work out very well,” Huff remembered with a smile.

With no early interest in science, he was drawn instead to literature and music and played the trumpet in a series of jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues bands. At the University of Georgia, Huff initially majored in music before switching to psychology and philosophy.
But it was a chemistry class that provided new insights about science.

“It was all so logical and precise and there were actual answers to problems,” he said.

Unsure what he would do with this new interest in science, Huff traveled a circuitous path on the road to breast imaging, starting with acceptance to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1977.

“During my internship in pediatrics at Vanderbilt, Dick Heller, then chief of pediatric radiology, suggested I look into radiology. I began my radiology residency the next year, followed by a fellowship in interventional radiology,” Huff said.

He and three Vanderbilt colleagues soon took over the contract to provide radiology services at Nashville General Hospital, where he remained for several years before moving to Baptist Hospital in Nashville. When the physician specializing in mammography at Baptist stepped aside, another career door opened.

“People looked around and said, ‘Huff is pretty compulsive, why don’t we see if he’ll do it?’ Mammography at that time wasn’t digital. The images were on film and you would review them with a magnifying glass looking for the details. Your job was to find that one thing on the film that was different from the other things,” Huff said

This attention to small details dovetailed with his passion for photography. The ability to help other people by searching for early evidence of tumors was the most appealing part of the work.

John Huff, M.D., seeks to spot the tiniest details that can impact the lives of breast cancer patients. (photo by Anne Rayner)
John Huff, M.D., seeks to spot the tiniest details that can impact the lives of breast cancer patients. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“Breast imaging is challenging because of the tremendous range of normal variation in the appearance of breast tissue. This normal range can overlap with early signs of breast cancer. So there is an art to looking at each one of those images and deciding what’s OK and what isn’t. Some radiologists find this part of breast imaging terrifying and others find it gratifying,” Huff said.

Over the years Huff gained recognition for helping build a large, successful breast imaging practice, and in 2007 he was approached by friends at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Dr. Jeremy Kaye, who was my instructor when I was a resident, called me because they were planning a breast center at One Hundred Oaks and they were looking for someone with my operational experience. Jeremy and Martin Sandler convinced me that Vanderbilt was committed to establishing a truly outstanding service. They gave me an opportunity to help make Vanderbilt the premier breast care provider in the community,” Huff said.

He was also drawn to a care model in which imaging specialists and clinical specialists all practiced together in a multidisciplinary approach to patient care.

Today, the Vanderbilt Breast Center at One Hundred Oaks is the leading breast program in the region, performing 35,000 screening and diagnostic mammograms in 2015. Huff enjoys leading the imaging practice, especially the opportunity to teach the next generation of radiologists. While he is focused on scientific details, Huff also draws great comfort in being of service to patients.

“There is richness in life’s details but sometimes you have to look for it. This is especially true in health care, where no two patients and circumstances are the same.

“It’s easy to forget that in a busy medical practice, but it’s something we should always strive to remember,” Huff said.

Huff’s wife of 28 years, Beth Colvin Huff, is a nurse practitioner in women’s health care. Before her retirement from VUMC she specialized in gynecologic oncology and directed the colposcopy program. She recently received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology.

“What Beth has done academically blows me out of the water,” Huff said.

Her lifetime love of horses also rekindled his passion for the spirited animals.

“That has remained a constant part of our lives together. She competes in shows and we try to ride together whenever we can.”

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