Children's advocate, psychologist Debby Harris dies of neuron disease


Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.

Debby Harris never thought of herself as a hero. But everyone else did.

She was lauded in the community for work with children. For years, she headed the gifted program at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School and created a summer program for gifted students in 1983 that still flourishes today. After the public sector, she worked at her own private practice as a school psychologist.

She made friends with a flash of a her joyful smile, with every hug she gave, with each encouraging thumbs up. But it was her brave and graceful fight to live after the diagnosis of a fatal disease that left everyone in her life inspired and hopeful.

Harris, 56, lost the battle Tuesday morning when she died just before 9 a.m. at Haven Hospice's E.T. York Care Center, where she'd been since Thanksgiving Day.

She died from complications of progressive bulbar palsy - a type of motor neuron disease that destroys the lower motor neurons needed for speaking, swallowing and chewing. She was diagnosed April 2009 and by September she had lost her ability to speak, eat, walk and move her arms. She is survived by her husband of 15 years, John Schert, and 12-year-old daughter, Kate.

"She lived a good life and she died peacefully," Schert said Tuesday evening. "In the end, she could only move her eyes ... I'm incredibly sad, but she's in a better place."

Following her wishes, Harris will be cremated. There will be a public memorial service at 7 p.m. Saturday at the University Auditorium on the campus of the University of Florida. Schert has created a tribute book filled with hundreds of photos and letters. Copies will be distributed at the service.

A potluck reception will immediately follow at United Church of Gainesville, 1624 NW 5th Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that people donate to the Kate Schert Education Fund at Campus USA Credit Union.

For several months, Schert used the Website www.drdebbyharris.com to give regular updates about Harris' condition as well as post letters from former students and family friends.

From Harris' diagnosis until her death, she had a strong, supportive network of friends and colleagues who were there to do anything the family needed, such as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, running errands and taking Harris to the doctor. Chris Machen has known Schert for about five years and met his wife this past summer. Once a week, she and three other people would come to the family's home to take care of housekeeping chores. During Harris' Hospice stay, countless people volunteered to sit with her in shifts day and night. She had someone beside her 24 hours a day, Schert said.

Machen said she was impressed by Harris' unbelievably positive attitude and "amazing will to live." Helping Harris, she added, was an honor and privilege for her.

"The outpouring of love for this woman and this family was just something to watch," Machen said. "She was loved by so many people. I wish I could have have known her before, but I got to know her spirit and her strength ... It's a real loss. She was quite a lady."

Contact Lashonda Stinson Curry at lashonda.stinson@gvillesun.com or 867-4129.

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