He uses high-tech imaging to rule out or pinpoint abnormalities, diseases, tumors and other disorders. As a scuba diver with nearly 500 dives, he has experienced countless face-to-face encounters with vibrant marine life — from thriving pristine coral and colorful schools of fish to sharks and poisonous predators.
Dr. Newton thrives on exploring and researching the interrelationships of life. “Something inside me makes me want to see other places,” he says. “We live in an incredible world. I get to watch the interplay and interconnection of life up close. I am astounded when I think of all we can do in imaging today, and seeing God’s gifts under the water is stunning. I am blessed to be part of all of this.”
Inspired by the Unlikely
As a teenager growing up in central Mississippi, Dr. Nelson loved off-road motocross racing. Plowing through muddy paths, steering into tight turns and soaring over major jumps fueled his love for speed and adventure. “It was exhilarating, and I was an adrenaline junkie,” he says.
However, his life took a dramatic turn as a 17-year-old high school senior. He had just sold his bike to help pay for his first semester at the University of Denver, and he was taking one last road ride. The car in front of him stopped. He maneuvered over and expertly laid his motorcycle down in a drainage ditch — an easy move for a motocross racer. But the driver turned the car, smashing the bumper into his knee and leg. His injuries were life-altering and life-threatening.
A passerby saved his life by tightly gripping his hands around Dr. Newton’s thigh. His actions stopped the profuse bleeding until an ambulance crew arrived. The hospital was still 25 miles away. Soon he would see on his hospital X-ray that the bones in his lower leg were not anywhere close together. His leg would never heal.
For the next year, he spent weeks in and out of the hospital battling infection after infection in his leg. He had no choice but to have his leg amputated below his knee. “It was pretty obvious that my leg needed to go because it wasn’t healing,” he says. “It would heal a little bit and then get infected again.”
He graduated from high school in a wheelchair and struggled to adapt to his prosthesis at college that fall. His hospital stays helped him decide to pursue a medical degree. He wanted to be a surgeon, but as he learned more about how radiology plays an important role in nearly every part of the body, he changed his focus to radiology.
As a college freshman with mobility struggles, he didn’t get out to socialize often. Then he met Grace.
Grace rejuvenated his love for adventure, and she opened his eyes to new sports and physically challenging endeavors. She encouraged him to learn to snow ski through a nationally recognized amputee ski program in Colorado.
“I was at that crucial age of 18, and I wanted to be normal,” Dr. Newton says. “Grace showed me all the possibilities, and I became determined to learn to snow ski. I was adamant that if I was going to ski, I was going to be on two skis. I started down the slope, twisted my knee, and had to be brought down on the back of a snowmobile. It was humiliating. Grace convinced me to try again with three skis — one ski and two little outrigger skis on a crutch — and I was successful.” Not only did he succeed, but he also gained the confidence he needed to regain a life of high adventure.
Today, they are married and Grace Newton, MD, is a Lynchburg dermatologist.
The couple has always included their two children in their scuba diving, snow skiing, water skiing and other sports. International diving and skiing are family sports that have helped unite them. Now grown, their daughter, Anna, is a dive master, and their son, Alex, is a dive instructor. Last summer, Anna worked with wounded warriors at Patriot Scuba in Northern Virginia, teaching and assisting them with diving. She also drafted the disabled diver certification manual. In college, Alex hosted tank dives, known as bubble parties, for middle school students.
The Newtons passed on their love for medicine too. Anna is earning her master’s degree in public health, and Alex is completing his podiatry residency. Family time can easily turn into discussions about evolving healthcare trends, new surgical techniques and advances in medical technology.
“We always joke that Alex will join our ranks and take call, and Anna will do policy and tell us all what to do,” Dr. Newton says.
As a radiologist at Radiology Consultants of Lynchburg for three decades, Dr. Newton has a unique front row seat to the rapidly changing landscape in healthcare and the technological advances in imaging.
“It’s a whole different ballgame,” he says. “I came out of medical school at a time when CTs were just beginning to be needed. MRIs were just around the corner. When our first MRI was installed, I thought it would never catch on. It takes too long. It’s too expensive. Now you can’t live without it, so usage continues to be on a steep incline.”
Dr. Newton marvels at today’s newer, faster CT and MRI scanners. Early MRIs required a lot of time to perform, and the images were filled with artifacts. When he images a wrist today, he can peer between the delicate wrist bones to see tiny ligaments. CT scans are clearer too. Advanced CT scanners have led to clear images of moving vessels like the heart, making the detail in the fine heart blood vessels significantly more visible.
In today’s medical-lawsuit-driven climate, a major part of Dr. Newton’s role is helping physicians make certain they don’t miss something in their diagnoses. Physicians have to be more concerned with doing too little than doing too much. Who knows how much is enough? Dr. Newton says that’s why the American College of Radiology has developed a series of guidelines to assist referring physicians and other healthcare providers in making the most appropriate imaging or treatment decisions. “It gives you a decision tree,” he says, “and that’s important, especially in emergency medicine.”
The latest technology has made sharing his findings with other physicians faster and easier. “I call the referring physician about a case. We look at the images together and discuss the patient. It is instantaneous. I dictate my report, hit a button, and it’s in the hands of another doctor. It takes about 20 minutes to image a patient and 20 minutes to reconstruct the images and scroll through them carefully with a critical eye. That’s at least half the time it would have taken before. One CT study may contain hundreds to a thousand images.”
Dr. Newton recently found a nodule on a woman’s chest X-ray. That led to her having a rapid CT, a biopsy and a PET scan, which turned up a liver lesion and created the need for a liver MRI.
“In the past we would have discovered the lesion and sent her straight to surgery, and that would have been that,” he says. “Our survival [rate] is better. And I like to think pain and suffering is less because we were able to do a needle biopsy rather than sending the patient to surgery.”
Dr. Newton lectures at the Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine, and he enjoys sharing his radiology expertise with students. “It’s pretty cool to be able to look at all the functioning muscles, vessels and organs,” he says. “When I lecture at Liberty University, I get excited. When I show a set of images, students get wide-eyed. I love to open this world to someone else.”
Share Your Story
Dr. Newton says he finds great reward in encouraging people and sharing what he has learned from his life experiences. “It’s the concept of paying it forward,” he says. “Whether or not that person helps you out, you get it back.”
After his accident, Dr. Newton was a major recipient of this “paying it forward’ concept. A Vietnam veteran amputee who heard about his injury began visiting him in the hospital. “He sought me out and stayed with me,” Dr. Newton says. “Someone told him it wasn’t looking good for me. He encouraged me by sharing his experiences. He helped me understand that my life was not over. I was going to get married. I was going to have kids. I was going to have a life. It was going to be OK. He gave me the basis I needed.”
On a dive trip to a small fishing area in the Dutch Caribbean, Dr. Newton says his experiences came full circle. He pulled on his diving equipment and put on his artificial leg — a pipe with a foot. A family drove up and parked nearby.
“I see this family getting out of the car,” he recalls. “Then I see a very sad young boy on crutches having trouble getting out of the back seat. I know he is a recent below-the-knee amputee because I can see the suture lines. He is so sad that I can tell he is where I was 40-some years ago. He’s thinking his world is over.
“I look back. The family looks like they are in a time machine. They all stare. I stop and wave. Then I head to the water, put on my fin and swim away.
“That’s the cool thing. Even without words you can pass on an important message to someone else. Nothing I have done is remarkable. It’s the people around me who have helped me and supported me who are remarkable. I want to share my experiences so others can use what I’ve learned and move on with their lives. For me, that’s what constitutes happiness.”
About Richard Newton, MD
Richard Newton, MD, a board-certified radiologist, is a partner in Radiology Consultants in Lynchburg with more than three decades of experience. He is a physician and family practice residency proctor for Centra, and he lectures at Liberty University.
Dr. Newton is a Fellow of the American College of Radiology, one of the highest honors in the country for radiologists. He received his medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Denver.