As a teenager, Nathaniel Harris was a bit of a scrapper. It got him into hot water on occasion, but surprisingly pushed him onto a career path to medicine.
"I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, well since 14,” says Harris, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cincinnati. "It’s a terrible story, I punched my brother in the face and his tooth split my hand open. It cut the tendon of my right hand in a way that I had to get plastic surgery to get my tendon sewed back together. Because of the nature of the injury they didn’t put me to sleep, so I was able to watch the whole thing. I was really fascinated that the surgeon knew exactly what to do to and basically fix the injury.
"It’s a common type of injury. They call it the ‘delinquent sign,’” says Harris. "You have a kid who punched something, and it cut his hand open. It’s a common thing. I was being a naughty kid and I had some anger issues. At least I did back then, but I don’t have them anymore. I was just fascinated with his knowledge of what to do and I thought that this must be the coolest job ever. Ever since then I have been sold on medicine.”
Amidst laughter Harris calls the episode "life-changing” though his parents weren’t so amused.
Harris, 26, will be among the 159 medical students who will graduate Saturday, May 20, during the College of Medicine’s Honors Day ceremony. He is one of two initial graduates holding the Lucy Oxley, MD, African-American Medical Student Scholarship. Alicia Barclay of Bronx, NY, also received the scholarship established in 2008 by Johnie and Kenneth Davis, MD, professor of surgery, to honor Oxley, the first African-American to earn a medical degree from UC—a bachelor’s of medicine in 1935 followed by a doctor of medicine in 1936.
Oxley, a graduate of Woodward High School, interned at Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University before returning to Cincinnati to start a family practice in the mainly African-American community of Walnut Hills. She received several honors in her career including the American Medical Association Special Achievement Award in 1967 and Family Physician of the Year by the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians in 1984. She passed away in June 1991.
"It is good to know the legacy of African-Americans in the medical profession,” says Harris, a native Cincinnatian. "Hearing Dr. Oxley’s story and some of things she went through is just really empowering in the sense that you see you owe it to people, other people of color, and fellow African-Americans and previous generations to do great things and try to improve the world and leave an impact. Things are better but there still needs to be a lot more improvement made.”
Harris will complete a three-year family medicine residency with the Banner Health System at the University of Arizona at Tucson. His desire to go into family medicine stems in part from his volunteerism as a medical student with the Center for Closing the Health Gap
, a non-profit organization committed to eliminating racial and health disparities in Greater Cincinnati. Harris and his fellow medical students conducted health screenings at community events such as the Black Family Reunion and local health fairs.
The students saw a high incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension impacting Cincinnati residents, especially African-American residents. Harris says he feels like more has to be done in primary care "despite all the advances in medicine and science here in Cincinnati.”
"I feel like I have some of the assets you need to become a great family doctor,” he says. "I feel like the specialty of family medicine would suit me well. Being able to relate to people is really important. I would see people at health fairs, and think to myself that ‘their story is my story.’ I feel like because I look like them and talk like them patients and I will have an ability to relate to one another. I think I can help bridge that gap.”
Harris says he hopes his time in Arizona will give him a chance to see how things are done outside of Cincinnati though he hopes to someday return to the Queen City. He received his bachelor’s in chemistry at UC and worked in the laboratories of Robert Rapoport, PhD, and John Maggio, PhD, while an undergrad and as a recent grad for little more than a year before entering med school.
"I am interested in the full spectrum of family medicine. It’s like being the jack-of-all-trades: the guy who takes care of your kids, takes care of you, takes care of your parents, and delivers your wife’s baby or your sister’s baby. You can basically provide a wide range of services for people,” says Harris.
Rapoport, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cell Biophysics, and Maggio, also a professor in the department who recently passed away, enjoyed a strong working relationship with Harris, who became a close mentee of the two researchers.
Harris sought their advice when determining whether he should pursue a PhD in chemistry or consider medical school.
"We had a number of discussions with Nate, and John Maggio was very instrumental in these discussions because John had received a PhD in chemistry and he knew first-hand, which was very good and not to downplay a PhD in chemistry, but rather he knew what would fit Nate.
"I know we encouraged him strongly to apply to UC. We thought it would be an excellent fit and that he would do well here. Both of us recognized what a fine individual Nate is and we saw that—his gregariousness, affability and his ability to laugh, absorb and his respect for the comments of others that are given in good faith and with reason. He could separate the wheat from the chaff, but he did that and was very polite and would never say anything negative.”
Rapoport appreciated Harris’ enthusiasm and strong people skills. He and Maggio looked forward to the regular updates and lunches the two enjoyed with Harris, who continues to stay in touch.
"He made people feel good in a sense,” explains Rapoport of Harris. "I think he has that and I encouraged him and I think John did too to go into a field of medicine where he had patient interaction. I thought he would be very good at listening to patients and empathizing with them. I am really pleased he did choose something that requires a great deal of that listening, and I know he is very good at it and I think patients will really benefit from his positive outlook.”