Columbia pediatrician takes medical trip to rural Missouri counties

Thursday, June 30, 2011 | 5:36 p.m. CDT; updated 5:02 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 2, 2011
Pediatrician Robert Harris sees Brett Griffin with his mother, Kim Griffin, Thursday at Tiger Pediatrics in Columbia. Harris called Brett a miracle baby and said he's an example of the advances in pediatric medicine since Harris began working 50 years ago. Brett is a 15-month-old quadruplet; he weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces when he was born at 25 weeks and now weighs 19 pounds, 9 ounces.

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.

Nearby needs

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.”

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Delcia Crockett July 2, 2011 | 3:15 a.m.

@"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."

I agree, and know this to be fact. I spent a great deal of my life in Southeast Missouri, and I know of cases where doctors refused to see and care for little ones, even in the most dire of circumstances. When I was growing up, we had the one family doctor and he never refused a call to anyone - even if they lived way out in the country and he had to drive out to them to help - and that was not in the horse-and-buggy days (lest Ellis is reading here *smile*). But something changed and some doctors refused to see children - and resulted in worsening condition - or, in one case of possible death - even after adequate care could be driven the distant to attain and all efforts then made to save the child.

@"Another hope is that other physicians will hear about his efforts and seize similar opportunities."
I guarantee you that, if/when you do go and perform this, you will stand 10 feet tall in the eyes of those to whom you administer, and you will be remembered for a lifetime, for the life you help heal, or save. God speed, and may the tribe increase.
: )

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 2, 2011 | 8:37 a.m.

The area has long been thought of as the most impoverished and backward part of Missouri.

It reached a form of national notoriety during the final years of the Depression, when tenant farm workers attempted a "strike" against their employers. Didn't work. I have some film footage (transcribed to videotape) of those unfortunates camped out along a concrete highway that appears to be US 60. The Missouri governor then was named Stark.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett July 2, 2011 | 8:59 a.m.

Ellis, though I was not alive in the Depression, I have read much about it and have been told by those who lived through it - and I think you are exactly correct in your observations here.

It is not that the people do not work, because some of them work very hard - but it is because of a set narrative of the region in motion from forever - an unseen barrier that blockades/impedes some individual progress toward success.

There have been all kinds of government programs sent into the area, but as recently as a couple of decades ago, a lot of the farm houses did not have decent drinking water or even humane conditions that the rest of us elsewhere consider routine and expect as normal every day life. Families could not even be clean in them for lack of safe water supply.

There have always been the government programs in education and all, but there is a very good reason health care, etc. is not as up to par as with the rest of the state.

I will not say that here, but anyone who has ever lived there and experienced it, knows - and now the drug dealers have moved in big time in the last couple of decades, to exploit the area even more.

Anyone can have a very tough time surviving in the Bootheel for lack of employment and other reasons, even now.

Here is something from one of the bigger towns in the Bootheel, from just last year:

(Hope this link is allowed, as it is pertinent to how essential that these problems need to be accessed realistically, and why pediatricians such as the one is this article will be so welcomed and appreciated in that area.)

I am not knocking the Bootheel; I support every effort to help the children in it though.

: )

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett July 2, 2011 | 9:08 a.m.

Ellis,is this what you were referencing?

This is very interesting. I think I will try to find a DVD documentary on it - to learn more.

Thanks for bringing the Depression facts up.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.