PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT Garrett Riggs, MD, PhD Neurologist, Brain and Spine Tumor Program, MD Anderson Cancer Center
ORLANDO - Garrett Riggs was only 6 years old when his father, a truck driver, died after a prolonged battle with liver disease. He and his Mom, a legal secretary, left their home in Kentucky and moved to Indiana, where his grandparents helped raise him.
Riggs attributes his fondness for caring for elderly patients to his grandparents’ nurturing. But before them, it was the doctor caring for his father who had “a profound influence on me and my family,” said Riggs.
“Dr. Robert Cloar is famous in our family legends. He is not famous for being especially brilliant or anything, although I am sure he was perfectly competent, but he is remembered for his kindness and compassion,” said Riggs, 47. “He cared for and about my parents even when there was no hope of recovery, and he helped Dad’s passing be as easy as possible long before palliative care was defined as a medical specialty. Many years later one of my mentors, Robert Joynt, MD, would remind ‘You can’t always be right, but you can always be kind.’ Dr. Cloar demonstrated that lesson for me early on, and I suppose I internalized it somehow about what being a doctor means,” Riggs said.
Riggs recently made a career move that puts him in an ideal position to put his philosophy for compassionate patient care into practice, while also drawing on his wide-ranging academic and medical training. He is the newest neurology specialist to join the medical oncology department at MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando. Riggs will be working with the Brain and Spine Tumor Program, where he will apply his expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of the cognitive effects of cancer and cancer therapy.
Riggs’ arrival adds a new and essential dimension to the program, said co-director Nicholas Avgeropoulos, MD.
“As we looked to expand our services in the Brain and Spine Tumor Program,” said Avgeropoulos, he “could have looked for someone to fill a position, or look for an exceptional person and an opportunity to restructure and develop new projects and programs.” Choosing the latter, Avgeropoulos said, “brings a very specific skill set to develop a cognitive program to help people with their memory disorders, whether it is from a brain tumor or from chemotherapy. We can amplify patients’ quality of life.”
Avgeropoulos said Riggs is “very even-handed and a deep-thinker, someone who is always looking at all sides of any question. He can modify what is the norm and he is driven by his passion for patient care. Everyone (at MD Anderson) is going to be better for it.”
Avgeropoulos and Riggs have a history. Riggs came to Orlando as one of the founding faculty members at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, as assistant professor of neurology and medical education. As Riggs acquainted himself with others in the Orlando neurology community, he was introduced to Avgeropoulos and enlisted his help in developing the curriculum.
“We talked about me coming over and helping out part time” at MD Anderson, Riggs recalled. “I was very pleased when I was offered a full-time position.” Riggs said that after spending his entire career in academic medicine, he was ready for a change. “I am very excited to make the change” to working in a clinical setting with patients, Riggs said. “It’s a new phase for me.”
Previous “phases” in Riggs’ life have included being assistant professor of neurology at Strong Memorial Hospital and Highland Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Prior to that he completed fellowships in cognitive and behavioral neurology and experimental therapeutics and clinical trials at the University of Rochester, and a residency in neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Riggs was awarded his MD at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1997, but before he climbed that hill he had earned three degrees that are the foundation of his current subspecialty: A bachelor’s in linguistics, a master’s in communicative disorders and a PhD in anatomical sciences and neurobiology.
“My trajectory is atypical. Ironically, I never set out to be a doctor, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Riggs. “I seriously considered not doing neurology. I was afraid I was simply following the path of least resistance after med school. I really enjoyed nephrology and endocrinology. I think the common denominator is that in all these disciplines, normal function and illness make perfect sense if you can understand the basic anatomy and physiology of the systems. In the end, of course, I chose neurology because it’s just what I love to do,” he said.
Riggs said he always told his medical students he “would not necessarily recommend the very circuitous route I took to medicine, but I certainly enjoyed myself along the way and I greatly value all the things I learned.
“We all find our own niche in medicine. My interest has always been in the patients who were the sickest, the people for whom everyone else had given up. Those patients with brain tumors, metastatic cancer, end-stage dementia and rare neurological syndromes,” he said. “This is a population of patients who are extraordinarily complicated and those are the folks I really, really like taking care of.”
How will Riggs do that in his new assignment at MD Anderson?
“It is something Dr. Avgeropoulos and I hope to explore in a systematic way, with participation from our colleagues in neuropsychology,” Riggs said. “As treatments for cancer have improved, patients are living longer with better outcomes. One of the areas where we can potentially be of most help with improving quality of life is to help patients return to their best possible level of cognitive function in terms of memory and thinking. This area is in its infancy in terms of both basic research” as well as clinical trials about “what kinds of interventions can help rehabilitate these higher cognitive functions,” he said, for patients who are enduring so-called chemo-brain.
Riggs’ first responsibility is to make the diagnosis and explain it to the patient, he said, and “the second step is to figure out the cause. The third step is to start working on rehabilitation, when possible.”
A self-described “nerdy kid” and “introvert” who is a musician (flute, piano) and who once worked at the National Public Radio station in Louisville, Riggs 4 years ago married Susan, whom he had known since high school but only reconnected with after 20-plus years. “There was a reunion coming up and she Googled my name and sent me an email. The rest is history!” he said.
Susan, an artist, has family in Sarasota and the Riggs’ go there as often as they can. But when in Orlando, this unpretentious, multi-tasking physician is clear about his leisure-time preference.
“My ideal evening is sitting on the patio with a glass of wine, my wife and a great book, and throwing the Frisbee” to one of their three dogs.