Doctor at the Top

Helen Diggs has responsibility for the more than 600,000 research and teaching animals at Oregon State. (Photo: Frank Miller)
Helen Diggs has responsibility for the more than 600,000 research and teaching animals at Oregon State. (Photo: Frank Miller)

By Lee Anna Sherman

A human life can pivot on the quirkiest of convergences. In the life of Helen Diggs, it was the accidental nexus of five unfortunate hikers, a bagful of poisonous mushrooms and a few heroic pigs that set change in motion.

It all started early one morning in 1988 when Diggs, then a young veterinarian, heard an urgent knock at the door of the lab-animal surgery where she worked on Portland’s Pill Hill. “Doctors! Come quickly! We’ve got some patients who need livers!” The two physicians Diggs was prepping for animal surgery peeled off their latex gloves and dashed out.

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous for the poisoned hikers, who had eaten “death cap” mushrooms (Amanita phalloides) after mistaking them for the edible “paddy straw” species. Liver transplants were still rare in those days. But the two surgeons, one from Oregon Health & Science University and the other from the Oregon Veterans Administration, had spent the previous summer transplanting livers into research pigs with assistance from Diggs, who ran the animal O.R. So when four of the five hikers were raced to the hospital with critical organ failure, the surgeons were ready to perform the first human liver transplants ever done at OHSU.

All four patients survived. And Diggs had an epiphany.

“It was a really beautiful moment for all of us,” she recalls. “Most of the time in animal sciences, we’re working at the bottom of the research pyramid, trying to find answers at the level of basic discovery. It can seem remote from its eventual application in medicine. But this time, our work went straight to the operating room in a human hospital and saved four people’s lives. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re right at the pinnacle.’“

Life-Saving Connection

Still, she expected research to be a stopover on the way to a more “warm, fuzzy” practice. When she graduated from Oregon State’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 1985, she envisioned treating horses and cattle or, perhaps, cats and dogs. But with that urgent knock on the surgery door, the profound link between animal research and human health hit home. Her thinking began to shift.

“It makes you feel like a million bucks when you can be that close to a life-saving event,” says Diggs, OSU’s attending veterinarian for animal research.

Another convergence — this one involving lambs, preemies and high-tech blood-oxygenation pumps — clinched it for Diggs. She was pregnant with her first daughter when she and her animal techs at OHSU were testing new oxygen pumps on lambs to ensure that the life-saving machines could safely be hooked up to infants at the neonatal intensive-care unit at Portland’s Emanuel Hospital. The “lambs were just adorable, frolicking and trying to nurse on your finger,” she recalls. Having to euthanize the animals after the testing was “really hard” on the young vet. She questioned whether working with research animals was for her. Then one day while on maternity leave, she went to the hospital, her newborn bundled in her arms for a well-baby checkup. Still full of gratitude for the animal-tested technologies that had saved her own baby during a rough delivery, she bumped into a pediatric surgeon on the elevator. “Cute baby,” he remarked, abstractedly. “Oh, by the way, we’ve saved 60 preemies with that pump you helped us test.”

Her commitment to research was sealed.

Veterinary medicine wasn’t on Diggs’ radar as a girl growing up in Portland. Thanks to yet another unlikely collision of people, places and species (a village on the Chukchi Sea, a menagerie of arctic animals and scientists at a military outpost), she stumbled onto her calling in the early ‘80s. Fresh out of the University of Portland with a degree in education, Diggs landed a teaching job in Alaska. Finding herself isolated on the frigid North Slope, she filled the dark winter weekends by volunteering at the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Barrow, where veterinarians from the Lower 48 conducted thermal studies for the Department of Defense. The lab’s big predators (polar bears, wolves) and arctic birds (ptarmigans, snowy owls) grabbed her imagination. So did the science and the “friendly, embracing” spirit in the lab-animal community.

After a 25-year career that included top leadership posts at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; and the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, she came home to Oregon State in 2009. “Extraordinary” is how Rick Spinrad, vice president for research, characterizes her leadership and national reputation. Announcing her appointment in 2011 as head vet and director of the Laboratory Animal Resources Center, he noted the astounding array of species under her care, “from tadpoles to swine.”