“You want to know something crazy about your brain?” asks Dr. Chris Huffman, ’01.”If you prick your finger, the brain feels it, right? But if you touch your brain itself, it can’t feel anything.”
His audience of some 40 Heathwood 3rd graders is rapt. It’s late in the afternoon, and it’s Friday, and they’re all clustered together on the floor in the Lower School Library. But Dr. Huffman has body parts. To be more specific, he’s got human hearts, carefully preserved and available to be passed around.
That Dr. Huffman’s body part of choice would be the heart is not surprising, since he’s an interventional cardiologist with Providence Heart. And for the students, who have recently been studying human anatomy, the chance to hear from someone who knows as much as he does about the body and how all its parts work is exciting enough that it’s easy to sit still and pay attention, even on a Friday afternoon.
This is Dr. Huffman’s second trip back to Heathwood, where he himself was a student for 13 years, to talk to the 3rd graders about anatomy and medicine. When he was first approached about the idea last year through Heathwood’s Columbia Connections program, which brings experts in many fields to campus to share their experiences and insights with students, he didn’t even think twice before saying yes.
“I still feel very connected to Heathwood, and very grateful for all I was given here,” he says. “So if I can give back in any way, I’m really glad to.”
Dr. Huffman started his own Heathwood journey in 1987 as a kindergartner and stayed on through graduation in 2001. What stands out most now about his Heathwood experience is the people: “I loved math with Mr. Venables, French with Madame Keller was wonderful, and there were so many other great teachers, many of whom are still here—George Scouten, Rip Blackstone, Jim Morris, Nancy Reeder, who just retired. The community as wonderful, and it was so nice to know everyone in your class.”
After Heathwood, Dr. Huffman studied math and philosophy at Yale University before returning to Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, a fellowship in cardiovascular disease at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a fellowship in interventional cardiology at New York University Medical Center. He returned to Columbia to practice medicine largely because it felt like home, both personally and professionally: “My family is here, and my dad’s a physician in Columbia, and I wanted to be part of this community,” he says.
Lots of current Heathwood students are likewise drawn to consider careers in medicine, and, as Dr. Huffman knows from personal experience, the path to such a career, especially for a specialist, can seem daunting. That’s why he says if he could offer one piece of advice to aspiring physicians it would be to stay in the moment as much as possible: “Medicine is a long road. Don’t worry too much about the destination—just focus on doing the best with what you’re doing right now.”
What he’s doing right now as a cardiologist, he says, allows him to tap into the same sense of awe and wonder that has his 3rd grade audience so spellbound: “I’ve always loved the heart. It changes so quickly—it can be fine one minute, then in crisis with a heart attack the next, and then just that quickly, fine again with the right intervention. So cardiologists really can do so much to help people.”
They can also—if they’re Chris Huffman—keep people captivated just by describing the flow of blood through the body. Or by reaching into a cardboard box and pulling out a real human heart that’s been mummified and cut open so everyone can see the valves and chambers within.
Having alumni like Dr. Huffman who are willing to come back to campus and share their expertise with students makes a big difference, says 3rd grade lead teacher Kim Bain: “We just love everything about Dr. Huffman- the fact that he volunteers his time as an alum, his great sense of humor, and his ability to relate to lower school students and get them excited about science.”