A beloved and thoughtful pediatrician, Wendell Riggs, MD, dedicated his career seeking out ways to serve those in need.
Before retiring from his practice in 1999, Riggs forever changed both the Pediatric department at Arnett Clinic and the Greater Lafayette community health landscape.
The road to Arnett
Riggs’ medical career began in 1954 when he served as a medical officer lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserves in Bainbridge, Maryland. Additionally, he had a rotating internship at Washington D.C. General Hospital. These roles provided Riggs experience as a diagnostician, specializing in various health issues.
After graduating from Indiana University Medical School in 1958, Riggs completed his residency at Riley Hospital for Children. While there, he became friends with Robert Hannemann, a young pediatrician who would soon start the Pediatric department at Arnett Clinic and convince Riggs to join him.
In 1963, Riggs took his profession to Arnett Clinic. Although he only saw five patients during his first week, within four years his practice was thriving—but that was only the beginning.
Over the next 30+ years, Riggs would leave an enduring mark on Greater Lafayette and his Arnett colleagues that would last well beyond his time.
Caring for others
Guided by his Christian faith, Riggs knew he was meant to be a doctor. He led his practice with humility and kindness to ensure all patients were treated equally. He was known for taking time to ask a child’s mother how she was doing. Sometimes those words would bring a woman to tears because she was struggling, and no one had reached out.
During his early years as a pediatrician, Riggs volunteered to serve as a medical officer and consultant to Wabash Center for the Developmentally Disabled. In this role, he organized a protocol for medical screening and regular healthcare.
Riggs began a healthcare effort with volunteer nurses to visit homeless shelters and jail inmates. He also provided free school physicals at the South Side Community Center, which evolved into the Lafayette Health Referral program that provides physicians the opportunity to help families in need.
Throughout his career, Riggs held numerous leadership positions with important community organizations. From 1970-1987, he served as the physician for the Tippecanoe School Corporation and was elected president of the Tippecanoe County Board of Health in 1975. He was the vice president of Arnett Clinic and chief of pediatrics at Home Hospital and St. Elizabeth Hospital. In 1987, Riggs was named the Tippecanoe County Health Officer, a role he held for nearly two decades.
His son, Steven Riggs, shared with the Journal and Courier on December 21, 2013, “He always said to be the very best person you could be because you could be the only Bible that person knows.”
Supporting the community
His leadership roles partnered with a strong vision for helping others motivated Riggs to invest in the community and act on their needs.
In 1984, Riggs introduced Tippecanoe County’s first Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) for women, infants, and children—a program now known as WIC. Alongside pediatrician Glen Cartwright, Riggs created a neonatal intensive care unit at Home Hospital.
In 1991, he requested to the Tippecanoe County Commissioners that a special clinic for AIDs patients and families be installed. The clinic opened at St. Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center.
Quoted in the Lafayette Leader in January 1992, Riggs said, “We need to bring both science and compassion to the scene. These people’s (AIDS patients) lives are shattered. They are living a time-bomb, and they are lonely and frightened.”
A legacy that lives on
In 1988 Riggs and other healthcare professionals founded the free Community Health Center in a 900-square-foot apartment that was formerly home to St. Elizabeth Hospital interns. The Community Health Center became a United Way agency that provides medical and dental care to those without insurance. The health center treated 240 patients in its first year.
In 1997 Arnett Clinic donated $300,000 to the Community Health Center Capital Campaign to construct a new facility at 1716 Hartford Street. The Wendell A. Riggs Pediatric department opened there in 2004.
Ten years later, the Community Health Center, having grown to multiple locations, was renamed Riggs Community Health Center in the doctor’s honor. It has now been in business for 34 years and saw 17,278 patients in 2021 alone.
Before Riggs died in 2013, Dr. Jeremy Adler was hired as the new Health Officer for the Tippecanoe County Health Department. Adler took after his childhood pediatrician, Riggs, when he assumed the position.
Riggs’ legacy lives on at IU Health and within the community through the programs he established and the many lives he touched.