S. E. Williams, Staff WriterPhysician, professor, lecturer, mentor, businesswoman, mother and wife, Dr. Leita J. Harris has spent a lifetime in dedication to her passion—the care and nurturing of others.
A large part of those efforts are aimed at empowering African American girls to take their health seriously. “When I talk to young girls in relation to taking care of their bodies I tell them about head-to-toe hygiene and include information on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” Harris shared.
Harris frequently asks the girls about what their goals are in life and encourages them to make their actions align with those goals. “Your body is not a hobby for someone else, value it, care what you put into it and how you treat it,” she stresses. Harris has never settled for mediocrity and encourages young girls to do the same. “Always strive to do the best you can,” she tells them.
A long time resident of Riverside County, Harris was born in Panama, raised in New York City and from an early age, knew she wanted to be a physician.
“My father tells me all the time I’m probably the only person he knows that as a little girl always said what I wanted to be, grew-up and stuck to it,” she reminisced during a recent interview with The VOICE.
As a child it was not easy for Harris to see the possibility of becoming a doctor. “At first, I didn’t really understand that a woman could be a doctor,“ she confided. ”I give praise to my dad. He encouraged me and told me if I really wanted to become a doctor, I could.”
When Harris coupled her father’s encouragement with her personal drive and ambition she was unstoppable in pursuit of her dream. In school, everything she did was focused toward that goal.
Harris’ academic efforts bore remarkable fruit. She earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from New York University; a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell University Medical College; and, subsequently made her way to California where she completed her internship and subsequently a residency in Obstetrics/Gynecology at the University of Southern California Medical Center.
Her interests in obstetrics and gynecology were sparked early in her college career where she began to learn about women’s’ bodies. “As a woman It was very fascinating to me to understand how I am different and unique from a man,” she shared. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about it.”
However, it was when Harris saw her first delivery that she felt a certain shift in the focus of her life’s work. “When I saw the miracle of life happening, I was stunned and in awe. I felt like the sky parted and the sun came down, I said to myself—this is it.”
While completing her internship and residency Harris established roots in the Inland Empire where she has remained. She practiced at the Riverside Medical Clinic for 15 years and is currently a gynecologist and patient educator at Kaiser Permanente. She also works as a gynecology consultant for UCR Campus Health; is a Clinical Professor of Biomedical Sciences at UC Riverside School of Medicine; and, serves on the Health Education Committee as part of the Parkview Community Hospital African American Advisory Board.
Harris sees disparity as the biggest issue impacting the heath of African American women. According to Harris, younger, pre-menopausal Black women are diagnosed with more severe and aggressive forms of breast cancer while breast and cervical cancers kill more Black women in general than women in other groups. “Their breast cancer is not detected as early as breast cancer in their white counterparts,” Harris stated. She is also concerned about the high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and HIV rates among Black women.
Reasons for the disparities are many but Harris thinks they begin with heath care. “Although the Affordable Care Act helped there is a lack of trust in the medical system held by some Black and cultural differences factor in as well,” Harris stated.
Harris believes these cultural differences are reflected in how some Black women, especially younger women, communicate with their doctors; and, to the contrary, how some doctors make assumptions about their Black patients and as a result, diagnose and treat them accordingly.
“At times,” Harris surmised, “there exists a disparity within a disparity in the treatment of Black women.” She concluded, “There is certainly a case to be made for more doctors of color.”
Harris’ impact in the community is expansive. She supports the ministry of her husband, Pastor Jon S. Harris, at the Castle Rock Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Riverside where she directs a Teen/Women Mentoring Ministry. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Eastside Reconciliation Coalition; the African American Advisory Board of Parkview Community Hospital; and, frequently responds to public speaking requests.
On Thursday, June 11, Harris will open Parkview Community Hospital‘s 2015 Health Series, What Women Want to Know, with a workshop titled, The truth about PAP smears—Why do we really need them? The hospital is located at 3865 Jackson Street, Riverside. For reservations call (951) 688-2211 ext. 3337 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later this year, Dr. Harris will launch her specialty private practice—Nurturing You, Women’s Health & Wellness, Inc.