COLUMBIA — When Robert Harris shows up in southeast Missouri next week with his stethoscope and tongue depressors, it will be the first time some of the kids he sees will ever have seen the likes of him: a pediatrician.
Harris, 76, a pediatrician at Tiger Pediatrics, is planning what he calls his "maiden medical mission" to provide health care to children in rural southeast Missouri counties. He will work in partnership with Whole Kids Outreach, an organization in Ellington, that helps families and kids with wellness and developmental needs. Harris will examine patients and refer them, if need be, to local health care providers.
Seeing a pediatrician will be a novel experience for some children in the area, said Susan DeMent, clinical director and a registered nurse at Whole Kids. The nearest pediatrician is 50 miles away from Ellington, though four nurses with Whole Kids and other partner groups make weekly house visits to pregnant and new mothers, offering health assessments, education, support and referrals to medical services in the six-county area.
Harris will work with the nurses making home visits on July 6, and he will run a clinic July 7 to 8 in space donated by Advanced Healthcare Medical Center in Ellington. With only three days to work, Harris said he knows he's tilting at windmills, Don Quixote-style, but he hopes his trip will bring awareness to medical needs in rural areas of Missouri and inspire others to serve.
Harris felt compelled to offer health care services in a rural area after reading an AP story that reported the United States ranked 42nd globally for its child mortality rate.
“It’s disgraceful. It’s devastating,” Harris said. He said he doubted many people or doctors were aware of the statistic; he had previously assumed the United States ranked much higher, considering advances that have occurred in pediatric medicine over the years.
He was agonizing over how to respond when he heard Sister Anne Francioni, director of Whole Kids Outreach, speak to a Children’s Trust Fund committee in October 2010. Harris said he knew right away he wanted to help the children there.
“My life has been filled with divine intervention,” he said.
One of the counties Whole Kids serves is Wayne, the place Harris was born and raised. Although he has no family left there, Harris said he still feels strong emotional attachment to the place.
For this reason, DeMent said she plans for Harris to do house visits in Wayne and Reynolds counties. Whole Kids serves four other counties, as well: Iron, Shannon, Carter and Butler. In these areas, DeMent said, many people are low-income and have little access to health education and facilities.
DeMent said she hopes Harris’ visit will connect children with other medical resources and encourage them to visit a pediatrician for further medical needs.
Harris also hopes to bring education about child safety, wellness and preventative medicine to the families. “I feel part of my mission there is to do some teaching,” he said.
Doing and teaching
For 50 years, Harris has worked in pediatric medicine. He graduated from MU in 1961 and served three years after that as an intern and in residency at the MU School of Medicine.
He apparently has a knack for befriending his patients. He wrote a children’s book illustrated by a former patient, and another former patient will accompany him on the trip.
Kara Mohr, a graduate student at MU who was accepted into the School of Medicine on Tuesday, and Tyler Padgett, a medical student recently admitted to Kansas City University of Medicine and Bio Sciences, will shadow Harris and help gather background information on patients.
Mohr said Harris was her pediatrician for 18 years. She decided she wanted to be a pediatrician in elementary school, and Harris was a “guiding hand the whole way,” allowing her to shadow throughout high school and college.
“Dr. Harris is the kind of doctor I want to be,” Mohr said. “When he sees a patient, it’s not just about their physical health — it’s about their emotional health. It’s how they’re doing in school . . .”
Padgett has previously shadowed Harris, as well. Harris was his mentor through Central Methodist University, where both earned degrees.
Padgett is looking for enlightenment on the trip. He hopes to someday do medical service trips abroad, and he said working with underserved people could help him prepare for what’s ahead, though he does not know exactly what to expect from the trip.
“I basically trust Dr. Harris,” Padgett said. “If he says, ‘Go southeast,’ that’s where I’m going.”
Jerry Harris, Harris’ wife, is also going on the trip. A receptionist, she is "my right arm, right leg and the right side of my brain sometimes," Harris said.
They're both excited for the trip.
“In the golden years of my life, I’m on a Don Quixote mission,” he said.
He hopes to return to southeast Missouri next summer to do the same work for a longer stretch of time. Another hope is that other physicians will hear about his efforts and seize similar opportunities.
“Consider turning your missions within,” he said. “(The need) is right here in this country.”