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Neurology’s Davis blends modesty, clinical excellence

Feb. 8, 2018, 10:04 AM

Neurology’s Thomas ‘Tom’ Davis, MD, is known for his sharp intellect, supportive nature and down-to-earth style. (photo by Joe Howell)

Thomas “Tom” Davis, MD, enjoys archery when he’s not treating people with movement disorders.

Modest and unassuming, he’s hesitant to assert his knowledge and expertise, but colleagues say he can hit the bull’s eye of a medical complexity simply by asking a question.

“Dr. Davis is very quiet and mild-mannered, but he will be the one at grand rounds who asks the question that gets to the heart of what the real issue is — the question we should all be asking that we don’t know to ask,” said Heather Riordan, MD, a fellow neurologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

Davis, professor of Neurology, serves as director of the Division of Movement Disorders and has practiced medicine for more than 25 years. He’s the man with the bow tie often seen on a motorcycle cruising around the hospital campus. He usually rides a Triumph Bonneville or a Ninja 650 to and from VUMC, where he is a popular mentor for residents and fellows.

“As residents, we select a faculty adviser,” said David Isaacs, MD, who completed his neurology residency at VUMC. “Everyone was picking him.”

Riordan works alongside Davis two half-days a month.

“He’s gentle with his patients in a beautiful way,” Riordan said. “He’s a brilliant clinician and a brilliant mentor. I’m in pediatric neurology. Part of the reason I came here is to work with him. There isn’t a fellowship in pediatric neurology for movement disorders, so he is allowing me to come work with him. He has been incredibly supportive.”

Davis’ work ethic, commitment to patients and “down to earth” style have recruited many physicians to VUMC, said Fenna Phibbs, MD, another fellow neurologist.

“He does not take credit for what his team/division has done,” Phibbs said. “He is very quick to pass the credit on to others and hide in the background. Our division would not be what it is without his guidance. Every one of us without hesitation lists Tom Davis as one of the reasons we work here.”

David Charles, MD, another neurologist who has worked with Davis for years, said Davis is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders specialists.

“All of us who work with him know that he is the most kind, approachable, caring physician, mentor and friend in our midst,” Charles said.

Davis encountered similar support early in his medical career. He originally intended to become a family practitioner, but a summer job at a neuroscience lab between his first and second year of medical school at the University of Mississippi changed those plans.

“That piqued my interest in neurology,” Davis said. “To be honest, it had less to do with the brain and more to do with the personalities of the people who study the brain. They were a nice group. Not that the family practitioners weren’t nice, but the neurologists were a very academically contemplative group. They were kind of a low-key, nice group to be around. The brain is interesting, but I was attracted more to the people. Each of the subspecialties has some personality in and of themselves. The neurology personality is what matched mine.”

Originally from Ohio, Davis moved while in high school to Starkville, Mississippi, where his father was an agronomy professor at Mississippi State University. He went back to Ohio to attend the College of Wooster. During his junior year there, he started dating Kathy, whom he had originally met at Edgewood Junior High School in Wooster. They would end up marrying and having two children.

“We were kind of like ‘Harry Met Sally,’ but you would have to move the story to the start of the seventh grade,” he said. “We had dated each other’s friends and went on a lot of double dates where she was the other person’s date.”

Davis did a one-year residency in internal medicine in Mississippi before moving to Nashville in 1986 to complete his residency in neurology at Vanderbilt. He was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in neuropharmacology at the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and then returned to Vanderbilt and joined the Department of Neurology in 1991.

“The NIH experience was very interesting,” he said. “It was studying experimental therapeutics for neurodegen- erative disease, primarily Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

Most of the patients he sees have Parkinson’s disease, but over the years he has treated people with dozens of other neurological movement disorders. He said he’s grateful for advancements in treatment.

“The treatments for Parkinson’s have improved, but probably the treatments for dystonia, which is a large group of conditions that are characterized by involuntary muscle contractions, have really changed over the last 25 years with the advent of botulinum toxin and the advent of deep brain stimulation (DBS) for dystonia,” Davis said.

“There were some genetic dystonias that when I started were terminal illnesses. Now, with DBS people live normal lives. With neurodegenerative diseases in general, medicine has gotten better.”

Davis said he thinks working at VUMC is the best job in the world because he’s surrounded by brilliance. Asked about his best attribute as a physician, he answered, “I think I am comfortable being around a large range of different people. My patients come from a wide spectrum of society. I like that, and I’m comfortable with that.”

And as far as being so modest, he had this to say: “You are certainly, as a physician, not dangerous if you don’t know something. You are only dangerous if you don’t know it and you think you do.”

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