2013 Spirit of Gainesville Award Winner: Medicine
Labor of love
Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.
In her 20 years as a practicing obstetrician with North Florida Women's Physicians, Dr. Karen E. Harris has delivered hundreds of babies.
Dr. Karen E. Harris
Years in Gainesville: 24
How she defines the spirit of Gainesville: “There is a cohesiveness and continuity between the 'old Gainesville' residents, born and raised here, who also are very nurturing to the young people who come here for an education.”
Today, she labors to assure that women and children throughout the Gainesville community have access to quality health care.
In fact, three years ago, Harris returned to school to earn her master's degree in public health at the University of Florida, so that she can speak with authority to politicians and policy makers about the specific health needs of our community.
'I have been to Tallahassee and Washington to talk with our elected officials,” Harris says. “I try to be a resource for them as someone who is here in the trenches practicing medicine. I try to help them understand the impact of their decisions on the lives of our patients.”
Those who set policy get a refresher course in health issues that affect women, such as an unacceptable rate of premature birth, from this physician who has become a spokesperson.
The report cards are coming out for Florida and the nation in terms of prematurity, she notes, and neither Gainesville nor the state has done very well.
There's a lot of opinion among politicians and policymakers, but a lack of factual information, according to Harris.
“When you get down to what is science, what we really know about women's health care, explaining that is my job,” she says.
Harris didn't turn into a women's health advocate just three years ago. She came to the University of Florida College of Medicine in 1981. As a student she became very involved in the American Medical Women's Association, going to the national convention and getting herself elected national student coordinator.
“That opportunity really sparked the fire of seeing what women in national positions can do,” she says today.
Harris began her practice as an obstetrician and gynecologist in 1989. She became the first female president of the Florida Obstetric and Gynecologic Society in 2000 and now is serving her second term.
Add to that 10 years on the board of directors (and a stint as president) of the Alachua County Medical Society and her leadership role in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), where she is currently vice chair of District XII, covering all of Florida.
Still, Harris concedes now, for her voice to be effective, she needed more.
“I've always known I wanted to do some work on the state and national level for women's health policy — patient safety and access, prematurity prevention — but to work at that level, you need more credentials than those of a private practitioner,” she says.
Opportunity arrived in the form of a diagnosis. She was told she had such severe arthritis she'd need total knee replacement surgery. She can no longer deliver babies (although she maintains her gynecological practice).
So Harris headed back to the classroom. She says it was a perfect spot to learn about policy for women's health care, and what factors in the community limit access to care, particularly for the underserved population.
“One of my studies was geographic mapping of premature birth. There are actual 'hot spots' in Gainesville that we surveyed for signs of poverty. There was a strong association between being on Medicaid, being impoverished and prematurity. So how do you intervene and what services can you provide?”
As program chair and a speaker for the March of Dimes in Florida, she is looking at which programs might make a change in the rate of premature birth.
“One voice cannot make a difference in solving the issue of prematurity,” Harris says. “But one voice talking to many other people can make a difference.”
Outside of her role in the medical community, Karen Harris gives countless hours as a Girl Scout leader. She has had more than 300 girls go through the program and currently supervises 70 girls of all ages. She's the leader of Cadette Troop 195, for middle schoolers, which meets at the First United Methodist Church fellowship hall downtown.
“Girl Scouting used to be about cookies and camping,” she says. “Now it is about so much more.”
Harris' middle schoolers are working toward a silver award for a project done in the community. Two are working on different approaches to bullying in schools and a third is working with homeless animals. The girls have to talk to city commissioners, the school board, and learn how to use the resources already available.
“Girl Scouting now is about leadership training for young girls and women, with great emphasis on service and giving back to your community. Any project we undertake must be sustainable, with a legacy that will allow someone else to carry it forward,” Harris explains.
“How empowering is it for young girls to learn the steps to do that?”
Harris is married to Andrew J. “Sandy” Evans, a retired civil and aeronautical engineer. Son Wesley, 19, is a sophomore at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Daughter Sarah is a senior at Oak Hall School.
Harris feels the whole family has benefited from Gainesville's strong sense of community.
“There is a cohesiveness and continuity between the 'old Gainesville' residents, born and raised here, who also are very nurturing to the young people who come here for an education. We really feel that Gainesville is a 'whole' place,” the doctor/advocate says.