Life in pictures: Local radiologist shares his passion

Published 7:00 am Saturday, January 23, 2016

THEN: A younger Dr. Joseph Griffing. Today, the radiologist celebrates his 85th birthday.  Photo submitted

THEN: A younger Dr. Joseph Griffing. Today, the radiologist celebrates his 85th birthday.
Photo submitted

Today, Dr. Joseph Griffing of Picayune will celebrate his 85th birthday.
The accomplished radiologist and teacher can still recall many memories from his childhood and his impressive medical career.
Through smiles, laughter and some tears, Griffing relayed the story of his life.
He was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana to Ward and Ethel. He was the third of five boys and is the only remaining sibling alive.
“My dad was a cotton farmer and my mother was a teacher,” Griffing said. “He also served in World War I as a second lieutenant in artillery. He was involved in trench warfare in France. The Germans laid down nitrogen mustard over the trenches. When the guys were told it was fine to raise their gas masks, my dad took several gasps and got a big dose in his lungs. He coughed the rest of his life.”
Thirty-years later, as an intern at Charity Hospital, Griffing treated cancer patients with mustargen, one of the first chemotherapy treatments, which is made from the same substance as nitrogen mustard, Griffing said.
After the war, Griffing’s father pursued a career as a botanist, a move that paved the way for Griffing’s own foray into the medical field.
“He was always a scientist,” Griffing said.
In 1955, Griffing completed his medical education at Tulane University in New Orleans and began his internship at Charity Hospital, where he first saw an x-ray.
“I was working in the lab and would see this big, tall drink of water man come in and read X-rays,” Griffing said. “He was called a radiologist. So I went down and asked to watch. He put the X-rays on a box and dictated the report to a stenographer in the corner. There were no Dictaphones then.”
From 1957 to 1959, Griffing served his residency at Southern Baptist and Charity Hospitals in New Orleans. Also in 1959, he completed his fellowship at the National Cancer Institute.
Also in 1959, Griffing begin his military service as the deputy chief of radiology at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
“200 years ago, American seamen took ships around the world and came back with tuberculosis,” Griffing said. “So the government began this chain of hospitals to treat them. We treated American seamen and anyone in uniform.”
As radiology director, Griffing was in charge of radiotherapy, the treatment of cancer.
Radiology can be broken down into three fields, he said. They read X-rays, treat cancer patients with radiation and practice nuclear medicine. Griffing is board certified in all three areas.
“It’s a visual image and going through the learning, you learn it in different ways,” he said. “I learned by seeing pictures. You learn radiology by recognition.”
After two years in Baltimore, Griffing said he was ready to leave, so he wrote a radiologist in New Orleans to seek employment.
“He wrote back and said a doctor in Picayune was just in with his wife for an X-ray and they needed a radiologist at Crosby Memorial Hospital,” Griffing said.
In 1961, Griffing and his wife, Zoe, moved to Picayune.
After he went to work reading X-rays, he received a call from the hospital administrator in Poplarville, who also needed him to read X-rays at their facility. He also worked at the Washington-St. Tammany Charity Hospital in Bogalusa.
However, in Picayune, Griffing said the quality of medical care in the area was poor.
“It bothered me that they has to send the good patients to New Orleans or Hattiesburg,” he said. “If I read the chest X-ray of a smoker and saw a mass, the answer here was to send him to New Orleans and I would never hear of that patient again. At a major center, I would not only be reading the X-rays, but treating that patient in the basement with cobalt. In order to practice specialty medicine, you’ve got to have lots of people with training, training and training. It robbed us of the pathology. You got better in this field by dealing with more cases.”
Years ago, Griffing recalled a large number of children in the area became stricken with cancer, mainly leukemia. He contacted St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, who sent a team to evaluate the situation. The team sampled the Tung oil, sewer lines and air for carcinogens.
“They called it a clustering phenomena, but found nothing to explain it,” Griffing said. “The children were treated in Memphis, which was the best place to send them. If I found out a child had it and their parents couldn’t afford the travel costs, I told them to send their preacher to me. I told him to host fundraisers and do what it took to get that child there. The preacher would then give them a check for travel costs. At St. Jude all medical care was free.”
After a few years at Crosby, Griffing was contacted by Louisiana State University and asked to instruct a radiology course at Charity Hospital in Bogalusa. The college was starting a program to train young family practitioners. He taught the course for 10 years and prepared a lecture once a month.
“I trained about 100 young men to be family doctors,” he said. “I loved teaching. When my dad was in World War I, he was crazy about French people and when I told him I wanted to go to medical school, he told me the French word for doctor was docteur, which means teacher. He always wanted to become a teacher.”
X-rays were accidently discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, Griffing said, and it took 20 years to develop a decent machine. The first X-ray pictures were on glass plates, he said. After World War I, improvements were made with the creation of more complicated machinery, he said.
“They developed a way to develop pictures in a darkroom,” he said. “Then they developed automatic processors. The technician would go into the darkroom and put the X-ray through several different solutions and several minutes later, the machine popped out the film. All the rules said X-rays had to be read by a specialist and each X-ray had to have a written report on the patient’s chart to indicate the diagnosis.”
One of the changes Griffing noted about the evolution of the medical practice is that now it’s an exact science.
“In years past, doctors would get a gut feeling about a kidney stone, ulcer or typhoid without testing,” he said. “Years ago, a doctor in Picayune was said to walk into a home, sniff the air and knew if someone had typhoid. Today, you use labs to diagnose ailments.”
Griffing said that a written radiology report elevates the quality of care for patients. For example, if a six-month old child was coughing and running a fever, a doctor may say the child has early signs of pneumonia, he said. However, after reading an X-ray, the radiologist can determine that the child is perfectly normal, so the doctor can conclude that the patient doesn’t have pneumonia.
“Sometimes patients would be brought in after a car wreck and some lawyers would hope to find something wrong,” Griffing said. “It was my job to look at the X-ray and see exactly what the patient does or doesn’t have. I would be sitting in the hospital basement all by myself with a stack of X-rays and a Dictaphone and all I had to do was tell the truth.”

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