“Even though we are in a rural area, it is much more rewarding on a personal basis by taking care of people who really respect you and put confidence in you and really do appreciate what you are doing for them,” Huff said.
Over the years, he has grown with his practice, recently becoming board certified in sports medicine by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.
In the United States in 2010, 419 surgeons took the test, 365 passed — Huff was one of them. It makes him one of only 1,505 orthopedic surgeons actually certified in sports medicine in the United States.
“In a town like Clinton, to have a board certified orthopedic surgeon, it is unusual. I am proud,” he said.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery, which is kind of the governing body of orthopedic surgeons, in the past, was concerned with maintaining general orthopedic certification, Huff explained.
“As things have become more specialized, if you call Duke, or Raleigh now, they will ask you what part of your body is hurting, because they have those specialized doctors for knee, shoulders ... whatever,” he said. “You might say something like, I need to see a Dr. Smith because of a knee problem. They will say, Dr. Smith only treats the shoulder and elbow, you will need to see our other associate. Now they have specialist in hand surgery, orthopedic tumor surgery, joint replacement, pediatric orthopedics and in trauma. Slowly these sub-specialties are getting true certification where the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery has set guidelines and put down a credentialling process. The first one American Board of Orthopedic Surgery tackled was hand surgery. The next one was sports medicine.”
Huff said with more emphasis on sports-related injuries, there has been a push to get some regulation in the certification of sports medicine physicians on the sidelines.
“In big cities and at universities, there is a plethora of doctors on the sidelines, a combination of family physicians, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors, sometimes neurosurgeons,” he said. “The professional sports have all of those guys. In smaller places, like Clinton, we are lucky to have an EMS there. At least now, at the varsity level, we have an ambulance at the football games, but we don’t have athletic trainers at every sporting event. That has been a big push by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association to have trainers at each sporting event — well, you just can’t do that in Sampson County because there is just not enough certified trainers available. However, there are a lot of local doctors that, thankfully, have been out there and have lent their time and skills. We are fortunate to have these doctors on the sidelines. A lot of these family doctors, for no other reason than to help the kids, go out and spend a lot of their time on the sidelines of these games.”
Which is why when the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery began a credentialing process for sports medicine, Huff got on board.
“In 2007, they started this pathway to become more certified in sports medicine and it was a multi-year pathway. I got started on it back in 2008,” he said. “I spent time doing the required continuing education and, in 2009, we had to submit case lists showing that, not only do I have the knowledge base, but I also have the skill set. I had to submit all of the operations that we have been doing at Sampson Regional, and a certain percentage of them had to meet the criteria for sports medicine and the newer ones ... once we passed that hurdle, I had to actually take the test last fall.”
Although he took the test last November, he wasn’t notified he passed until late February.
The accreditation is another arsenal in Huff’s skills that he can offer to local patients. “We like for the coaches, players, all the family doctors and the entire community to know that we offer it right here,” he said. “We want to get the word out there that they don’t have to travel all over the place, it is right here.”
It is a long way from Huff’s beginnings. He always thought he would be practicing in a larger city, such as Raleigh or Wilmington. The statistics back up his initial theory — only 2 percent of board certified surgeons practice in communities less than 100,000 people, most go to the larger communities.
“I grew up in Raleigh and most of my family lived around Raleigh,” he said. “I went to college in Tennessee and then I came back to ECU for medical school. In medical school, I met a gentleman named Dr. Ed Bartlett and he, at the time, was the team physician for the ECU football team. He is the one I credit with getting me interested in sports medicine. When I got accepted for an orthopedic residency, it was in Orlando, Florida. I stayed there for five years and did another year of training in joint replacement and orthroscopic surgery in Clearwater, Florida.”
But something happened to him during his time in Florida.
“I was looking for a place to practice and to be honest, I really thought I would wind up in Raleigh or Wilmington,” he said. “When I was living in Orlando, at that time, there was a lot of drunk driving, alcohol abuse, crime ... To be honest with you, it was really kind of depressing, and I just thought, man there has to be more to orthopedics than this.”
That all changed while talking to his brother, who lives in Clayton.
“I have always been a big N.C. State fan and I have a brother who lives in Clayton and we talked on the phone a lot,” he explained. “And when I was in Florida, I would sit at night and watch the old Andy Griffith reruns on television and think, I am going to move back to North Carolina and find a place like Mayberry one day. It just so happens that a friend of my mother’s was on the hospital board (Lew Starling) and she needed some legal work done, and Lew was her attorney. She mentioned to Lew that I was in Florida and I was looking to practice medicine. Lew put Sue Driver on it and she contacted me and asked me to come to Clinton and take a look.”
The rest is history.
In June of 1998, Huff, his pregnant wife and two young girls, made the move to Clinton.
“We knew right away it was a nice place,” he said. “I really thought I would stay just two years and I got so busy, I just never left.”
He says that support has never wavered.
“Oh, it has always been great from day one,” he said. “When I first came up here, I remember Dr. Tommy Newton asked me to help him do some physicals and we went to the middle school and I just couldn’t believe it. These eighth grade middle school boys were saying, ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’ and taking their hats off when they talked to you. It was totally foreign to me because in south Florida, by the time those athletes there are in eighth grade, they are NFL stars (laughs). The kids were very respectful and it was a nice kind of throw back to the past. In Florida, the patients interview their doctors ... ‘Why should I let you take care of me?’ Here it is just the opposite. They thank you for treating them.”
By the end of his second year in Clinton, Huff’s practice was up and running and he was on his own.
Huff said since he is part of the community, it makes him proud to see the growth that has taken place over the years, especially with the health care options available to the community.
“People need to know what they have here,” he said. “It is just great to see how much things have grown around here over the past 10-11 years. It is for the better because, as I said before, if you need it, you can get it here and that is because of the support of this community and its leaders.”