Harris makes his way as physician, father and gay community leader
by Jessica Ennis
Born in Chicago, Harris, now 47, was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the exit to the stomach through which food and other stomach contents pass to enter the small intestine. The condition causes vomiting and could have led to severe dehydration or even death.
“The surgery was probably a much bigger deal nearly 50 years ago than it would have been today, and there probably weren't any pediatric anesthesiologists back then,” says Harris, associate professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.
Harris puts his left leg up on a table, pulls up his blue scrubs and points to a faint scar on his ankle. “You can still see where they put the IV in me,” he says. After the surgery, Harris' health quickly rebounded.
Harris' mother, Marie, was a pharmacist, and his father, Endom, who among other jobs worked for several years for the federal government's Department of Labor, divorced when Harris was eight.
Within the next few years Harris' mother married Edward White, who was a salesman for a drug wholesaler. Harris lived with his mother and stepfather along with his younger brother, Charles.
“To some degree, my mother, father and stepfather all raised me,” he says.
When Harris was beginning seventh grade, his family packed up and moved two hours away to the Milwaukee area, where they lived until he finished high school.
Harris was a busy teenager involved in many activities. He was in gymnastics, a drummer in the marching band and traveled with the American Field Service.
The summer between his junior and senior year of high school, he was a study-abroad student in Switzerland, living with a host family in the town of Langnau, near Berne.
“It sounded really neat at the time,” Harris says. “The opportunity to participate in another culture was absolutely transforming to me. It gave me a world view that has always been important to me, and the trip just broadened my view even more,” he says.
After graduating from high school in 1977, Harris attended college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. After earning an undergraduate degree in Pharmacy, Harris enrolled in medical school a year later.
“I was required to do a year of internship to obtain my pharmacy license, so I worked in a very busy drug store,” he says.
He realized during that year that he was making the right decision to pursue his medical degree, and says his knowledge of pharmacology has certainly helped him become a better doctor.
Harris said his father had high hopes that his son would become a physician.
“My father definitely wanted me to be a physician, but because the training is so difficult you have to make the decision for yourself. If you try to do it for someone else, you'll never make it through,” Harris says.
Harris' decision may have also had to do with the positive experiences he had with his own pediatrician.
“I was just thinking the other day about my pediatrician, Joseph Schapiro, who was the kindest, gentlest man. He definitely made an impact on me,” Harris says.
As most all doctors-in-training will admit, Harris says medical school consumed his life for four years.
“The big recreational thing to do was to play volleyball at noon on Fridays during a study break, and the definition of a big night out was dinner and a movie,” he recalls. “You really have to give it your all, especially the first two years. All you do is study and go to class. But it's always in your head that the ultimate goal is to become a physician, so you just do it.”
Harris said the third and fourth years were more enjoyable because he began to have patient interaction, and he was advised to start thinking about what specialty he was interested in.
“I kind of knew that I wanted to do Pediatrics, and doing a rotation in Obstetrics confirmed it,” he said. “After the obstetrician delivered the baby, their focus turned to the mother, but I was really interested in that little being that went to the open bed warmer,” he said.
He learned early that working with children could be fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time.
In Harris' fourth year of medical school, there was a five-week period just before Christmas in which he was involved with diagnosing three children with cancer.
“That just rocked me back on my heels, and I had to go out and buy the book ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People,’” Harris says. “I read it over the Christmas break, and that book has traveled with me over the past 20 years now. That book was incredibly helpful and affirming for me to know that in spite of all real difficulties, I still wanted to be a pediatrician.”
It was during his last few years of medical school that Harris became particularly interested in children's lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and asthma.
After completing medical school, Harris came to Nashville for a residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 1987. The program would give him experience at Vanderbilt University Hospital as well as Nashville General Hospital.
“I came to Nashville for the experience at Nashville General Hospital because I knew it would be a great training,” he says. “Way back when, they would put us in a taxi from Medical Center North to the General. The first time I walked in the clinic, I knew I could learn lots of pediatrics there.”
The patient population at the now-closed hospital on First Avenue covered the gamut of pediatrics.
“It was wild, but my abilities as a pediatrician were greatly enhanced by working there,” he says. “No matter what specialty you go into, you need to be well-rounded in general pediatrics.”
Working and dealing with complicated CF patients in the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic during his residency, which was run by Preston Campbell, M.D., Harris looked up to the director as a role model and wanted to “be like him.”
After his residency, Harris went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for a three-year pulmonary fellowship program.
“That was a fun time,” Harris said. “The 'research triangle' was such a great place to live; it was a very liberal, livable part of North Carolina.”
While in Chapel Hill, Harris came to a life-altering realization.
“During my first year of the fellowship, I came out to myself. This was during the scary times of the early 1990s, when there was all sorts of misinformation and near hysteria about acquiring HIV and AIDS.”
Harris began to give back to the gay community very early in his coming out by volunteering with the Gay Health Hotline in Durham.
Not only was Harris wary of coming out during such a tumultuous time, he said he was even more concerned about coming out as a pediatrician because of homophobic misconceptions by others about child abuse.
Once he completed his fellowship, he moved to Cincinnati to accept a position at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1993.
“I did lots of basic research there — four years of research and one year on the faculty. It was there that I came out professionally because I knew the hospital was really progressive, and the administration really listened to me, and supported me when I came to them. It was scary, but, at the end of the day, it was okay.”
In 1998, Harris came back to Vanderbilt to join the Division of Pediatric Pulmonology, led by the late Tom Hazinski, M.D. Harris primarily does clinical research, mostly on CF patients, investigating novel therapies for this progressive lung disease.
“Since I've been here we have investigated a new vaccine for RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), a new anti-inflammatory treatment for CF lung disease, new antimicrobials for Pseudomonas acquisition, which is a particularly nasty germ in CF. We are about to start a new clinical trial of a new inhalant medication for CF patients.”
The trial will be open to CF patients five or older who have a lung function greater than 75 percent and are overall stable. The six-month, multi-center trial hopes to find that the inhalant will cause the airway surface liquid to be more normal and less dry.
“All the trials I have worked on have been fairly significant. However, this new treatment really excites me. This trial is the first treatment that gets to the underlying mechanism for CF rather than treating a symptom or downstream complications.”
Added Paul Moore, M.D., associate professor of Pediatric Pulmonology at Children's Hospital: “Dr. Harris has been a great colleague to work with and is very thoughtful with his patients. On a professional level, he's been heavily involved in important research in Pediatric Pulmonology, and has very well represented the cystic fibrosis and pediatric pulmonology communities."
The quality of care for CF patients is also very important to Harris.
“The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has had a database that follows patients over time at each of the CF care centers. Reviewing this information has shown that some centers do better and some do worse in every area of care. Those centers that do better have patients living a decade longer than average,” he said.
“Ten years! That is really significant for a disease where the median life expectancy is 35 years. The CF Foundation has really been helpful in getting all of the CF care network to follow what those 'best centers' are doing.”
According to Moore, Harris has a great rapport with the adolescents with cystic fibrosis.
“Over the years, he has taken patients with him to the medical school to help the medical students understand first-hand what this disease is all about. Patients have later reflected to me how meaningful it has been for them to share their stories,” Moore said.
In addition to running clinical trials, Harris sees many patients with asthma and with broncopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). BPD occurs in infants who have been treated in the NICU with breathing difficulties.
Outside of his packed work schedule of doing research and seeing patients, Harris' life is consumed almost entirely by the love of his life — his four-year-old daughter, Maria. But it was nearly a three-year struggle for Harris to add the role of father to his accomplished resume.
In 1993, Harris recalls going into a bookstore while attending an American Thoracic Society Conference in San Francisco.
“I picked up the book, "The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook," and bought it. I consider that the start of my parenting journey. Nothing happened for seven years until I turned 40,” he said.
“That milestone may have had something to do with the process starting again. The stars aligned when I was at a neighborhood party back in 2000. I heard about a guy who had adopted through the state, and I learned about the process.”
Soon after, Harris attended an informational class about adoption, began classes through the agency and filled out mountains of paperwork, which included five letters of recommendations, home visits, fingerprinting, financial and personal background checks.
“The paperwork was extreme — including an autobiography,” he recalls.
Months went by and he never heard anything from the agency, and eventually they stopped responding to his calls. He then learned he would have to fill out the paperwork again since a year had passed since his original filing.
“I decided that wasn't going to work, so I tried another agency. I had a similar experience. They eventually told me since I was a single man, they could not let me adopt.”
Harris' commitment to becoming a father was unwavering, and he decided to work with a third agency in 2002.
“I called a social worker who agreed to work with me; and to make a long story short — my daughter, Maria, was born on Nov. 5, 2002,” Harris says.
Harris was at the hospital for the birth, and gave Maria her first bottle when she was just one hour old.
“My overwhelming thought for the first several days was that we were on a roller coaster. I didn't know where we were going to end up, but I knew we were in this together,” he said.
“It was the culmination of a lot of work and I just remember thinking we were on a journey.”
Harris took off about eight weeks to be with his daughter before returning to work. Maria had a caregiver originally from Guatemala for the first three years of her life, and learned to speak Spanish fluently in addition to English.
“I know about 20 words in Spanish and Maria will often tease me. I'll ask her what the word for helicopter is in Spanish, and she'll come back with another word in Spanish that I already know, just to mess with me,” he says.
Harris and his daughter, who is enrolled in Vanderbilt's child care program, do lots of art projects and often go swimming at the YMCA, but he says there's “never enough time.”
He adds, “It's true what they say, there is no guidebook and you have to make it up as you go along. To get Maria to put on her seat belt, we'll have a contest to see who can put theirs on the fastest. We're always having contests for something — it's just what we do.
“She has an outstanding imagination,” Harris said. “We truly have a bunch of fun, and I believe having a child added more depth to my practice as a pediatrician,” he says.
Harris, who has always been involved in issues that are important to him, has spoken frequently on behalf of the gay community, locally and nationally.
A past president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, Harris has testified before a U.S. Senate committee in opposition to the proposed Amendment on Marriage and has taken on Tennessee's proposal to ban gay and lesbian adoption, which failed in committee.
“I'll drag my little dog and pony show out whenever they need me to talk,” Harris said. “I consider myself a congenital activist. I was taught the importance of giving back and that has extended beyond gay and lesbian issues.”
Harris, who is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, said he learned activism from his mother, who was very involved in her community through many organizations.
Harris is also the current head of the section of Pediatric Pulmonology for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
He wears several multi-colored rubber bracelets on his arm promoting causes such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, American Lung Association, the Down’s Syndrome Association and the Matthew Shepherd 'Erase Hate' campaign.
When asked if these bracelets serve as a platform, he replied, “These are important causes to me, but really I have found these bracelets work when I am examining a little baby — they serve as a distraction for them,” he said with a laugh.
He does wear some accessories that have a deeper meaning, though.
Around his neck is a large wooden beaded necklace which serves as an I.D. badge holder, and attached to it are three button pins with pictures of his daughter from her first years of life.
The necklace is in honor of his father, who, when suffering from moderate Alzheimer's before his death, would string together beads with Harris.
He also carries the memory of his mother with him by wearing her silver and copper bracelet.“I didn't end up here by myself — lots of people supported me and helped me get to where I am today,” he said. “This is just a way for me to carry the most important people with me.”