#MiFamMed Member of the Month

December 2021

Aisha Harris, MD

Which practice settings/types have you experienced throughout your career?

A majority of my primary care experience is in Federally Qualified Health Centers, both during and (now) after residency. I am currently working at an FQHC in Flint, Michigan, as a National Health Service Corps Scholar. I have worked in community hospitals, academic hospitals, and VA hospitals, but I only work in an outpatient clinic now. I currently work in a clinic where I see adults and children, both men and women, doing procedures and substance use treatment as needed. Every patient is different and every appointment is different.

What led you to this career, and was your path inspired by anyone?

Honestly, in college I wasn’t really interested in medical school because it seemed like too much time after finishing college. When I was 17 years old as a freshman at the University of Michigan, four years earning an engineering degree then another four years of medical school seemed like forever to be in school. After generations of progress, college was becoming a normal option for my family, so pursing higher education was very much foreign territory. Little did I know that my small desire to be in the health field would blossom into becoming a family medicine doctor.

My first plan was to use my chemical engineering degree to go into health technology or pharmaceuticals, helping people in a more indirect way. I have always been a community-oriented person and spent a lot of time volunteering, from when I was a Girl Scout and earned the Silver Award to when I was heavily involved in after school programs with the National Society of Black Engineers. Positively impacting a community has always brought me joy and giving back was something my mother showed me was an important part of life.

The idea of going into health technology or pharmaceuticals stayed with me for most of college until I did an internship in New Orleans. I worked for Shell Oil Company for a summer; it had nothing do to with health, and was immediately after the BP spill in the Gulf, but it was a job. I used my off-time to volunteer at an HIV/AIDS transition home called Project Lazarus. There I saw the compassion and challenge of healthcare but also the friendship and humanity. When I came back from New Orleans to start my senior year I only talked about my volunteering and not the engineering job that had me there. I spoke to my mom about how I really enjoyed volunteering at Project Lazarus and from there I took the pre-med journey seriously and I never looked back.

My mother was a hard worker and always wanted the best opportunities for my brother and me. She encouraged me to stay curious and try new things to find out what was right for me in all chapters of my life. My mother worked as a health administrator and when I was in college she connected me with a doctor she worked with because I had no idea how to get into medical school. My senior year of college I decided I didn’t want to be a “classic” engineer. I stopped looking for engineering jobs and started looking at medical school applications. Everyone thought I was random and crazy but I kind of had a plan of multiple back up plans if this medical school thing didn’t work out.

I wanted to be a doctor because I enjoyed the blend of humanity, science, and systems that medicine provided. While at Georgetown University for medical school I learned about family medicine for the first time. It was the perfect balance of community and medicine and would provide me with the grassroots and on-the-ground approach to medicine I wanted. I was motivated to be a resource for my community; so, after finishing my family medicine residency at the University of Illinois in Chicago, I came back home to Flint. I came back to the community and people that raised me. My mother understood my passion and supported me as I walked through uncharted territory to become a black physician. My family and Flint community inspired me to strive for more than what was expected of me and motivated me to be a catalyst for change. My path was not straight by any means but it was perfect for me and now I am practicing medicine in Flint, a place I always called home.

What has been the most unique aspect/experience of your practice of medicine or training thus far?

I don’t feel like I had a lot of unique experiences, but I will tell a story of when the country went into lockdown in March 2020 because I don’t think a lot of people understand that chaos in the hospitals. It was my last year of residency and I was in the cruise control mode of electives and no more inpatient rotations. We were hearing about the Coronavirus but nothing had really changed because we hadn’t had many cases in Illinois. But in the middle of March, everything seemed to skyrocket. The precautions, the chaos, the unknown made things challenging, to say the least. As people were getting ready to enjoy what everyone thought was going to be a two-week staycation, the hospital and healthcare were changing. Patients were coming in and taking doctors and staff out on quarantine for weeks at a time because testing was not available at the beginning. Hospital administrators and department heads were having last minute meetings as logistical nightmares developed.

I remember one Sunday on a beautiful March day, March 15th 2020, I was chilling and enjoying my day off when I was informed that half of our inpatient team was going to be out on quarantine after exposure from a patient. As one of the chief residents of our residency, I helped with the scheduling adjustments and solutions. In family medicine residency, at any point, most of the residents are on rotations in the hospital whether on family medicine or another specialty. The pool of people that can be jeopardized or called in last minute is small, so COVID challenged all of this. When the inpatient team got compromised with information of a positive COVID test on a patient already admitted, it was two hours before their shift was to start that Sunday night. As the chief on call I remember sending an email or text or something to everyone saying something short about how schedules were about to be significantly adjusted and to be ready. Our department called a last minute meeting and COVID was now very real and threatened hospital and clinic care more than we had planned for.

The most immediate decision was who would go in to cover the night team shift that night, as plans were made for the future. As a senior and chief resident, I volunteered myself because I didn’t need much additional support as a graduating senior and no one wants a last minute two hour notice to go and do a 12-hour night shift. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce and I remember documenting how much time I spent in a patient's room, distance from a patient, and what PPE I had on, because if there was contact tracing I wouldn’t be able to remember everyone. By the next day, after I woke up from crashing after the shift, our department had a two-week plan for inpatient coverage. By the end of the week we had a two-month plan as everyone’s original schedules were completely adjusted and now our residency world consisted of two-week rotations of a non-COVID inpatient team, COVID inpatient team, and everyone else who basically did mostly virtual appointments.

The entire hospital and department chairs literally had to make a huge logistical change to create a form of isolation and maintain quality patient care. The operation rooms became ICU beds, the pediatric floors had adults, the hospital was full yet silent. Chicago went quiet. The country went quiet. The highway was clear and the subways were avoided. Almost two years later, it is crazy to think how much healthcare has changed and how much the country has changed. Back in March 2020, I didn’t think we would still be in this. Being in a pandemic was not on my bucket list. The pandemic has been a lesson on preparation and adaptation and I am very proud of how my residency program adjusted, minimized exposures, and helped provide quality patient care in chaos of March 2020 and beyond.

What advice would you give to your student or resident self?

Be yourself. I know that medicine is a traditional field that has it ways of doing things. But as a black woman from Flint, Michigan, when I was a medical student and resident I found that style of speaking and existing in medicine was not quite me. I wanted to learn and be the best doctor I could be, but there is a genuine and human element of medicine that can’t be taught. Patients can see through doctors who are not themselves and it honestly will take a toll on you if you’re not being true to yourself. There are some tough moments, conversations, and decisions in medicine that are made easier if you’re more human. Be evidence-based and compassionate, but also don’t be afraid to be yourself.

What is one professional skill you're currently working on?

When you are in training, whether medical school or residency, you don’t learn enough about the different pieces of the healthcare system outside of the clinic and hospital. I am interested in public health and health policy, so I am actively trying to gain experience and knowledge in these areas because so much of medicine and the health system is non-clinical. The decisions about funding, laws, policies, regulations, etc. are all very important to health in the community and quality of life.

Growing professionally is important and developing new skills will keep things interesting. Currently, I am pursing more public health and health policy skills through experience on all levels in order to better understand local health concerns, state advocacy opportunities, and national public health initiatives. Locally, I am part of the NAACP Flint Chapter Health and Environmental Committee and the Genesee County Prevention Coalition Board of Directors. Additionally, I am on the MAFP Advocacy Committee and currently the vice chair of the NMA Community Medicine and Public Health Section. Being able to contribute to health decisions but also learn from the expertise of doctors, groups, and advocates from diverse backgrounds continues to be a valuable experience for me and I am looking forward to continuing to grow professionally as a primary care physician, clinically and non-clinically.

Why is it important for you to be a member of Michigan Academy of Family Physicians and American Academy of Family Physicians?

Being a part of AAFP and now more recently MAFP has provided me with the opportunity to be exposed to the diversity and beauty of family medicine. As a member, I am connected to unique experiences and able to build relationships with fellow family medicine physicians beyond my community. Having a system that has so many chapters and interest groups is convenient and helpful when I want to learn more about a certain area. Additionally, it gets me rejuvenated about the future of family medicine to see so many people doing different things under the same specialty umbrella. On a basic level, the membership provides easy access to valuable CME; but on a deeper level, membership is a constant reminder of how wonderful, impactful, and inspiring family medicine doctors are.

How do you achieve work-life balance and maintain your own wellness?

My work-life balance starts with proactively recognizing that my life does not revolve around work, that work is only one piece of my life. To help decrease the stress of work, my documentation style is content over beauty, which helps me be more efficient with notes. I am involved in non-clinical opportunities to break up my clinical time with outreach and advocacy. Also, I prioritize boundaries with time away from work and vacation time, because if you don’t take your time off seriously, then no one will, and you won’t have as much time off.

Working in healthcare can be challenging, especially in the current setting of living and working in a pandemic. One way to remind myself of why I went into medicine is through my BLK FAM DOC outreach platform that allows me to share health information and connect with my community. Outreach has always been a passion of mine, so continuing outreach opportunities helps rejuvenate me during the difficult times of working in healthcare.

Finally, coming home to Flint has given me an endless support system, and being able to see family and friends with such ease is something I love so much. Doing things that I enjoy like traveling and going to plays, community events, and more reminds me that life needs to be lived and being a doctor is a only a fraction of my identity. I try to remember that I spend more time outside of work and that it is important to figure out how to enjoy life in general and the relationships and experiences that make it up. Doctors are humans too. Doctors are humans first. When I am outside of clinic I am Aisha, so for a majority of my day I am not Dr. Harris.   

What book/podcast/Netflix series are you currently enjoying?

I don’t know how, but I have been binge watching baking shows on Netflix. I don’t bake but I have pressured myself to learn this winter cause there really is no excuse for how much I know about baking. I highly recommend the Great British Bake Off, Baking Impossible, and Nailed it. They all are great and I think in all the chaos it is nice to watch something so neutral and hilarious.

If you could choose one superpower, what would it be?

My go-to superpower for the last 20 years has been teleportation with no gravitational limit so I can fly. I think this is seeded in the fact that I love to travel and experience new things.

Is there anything else you would like everyone to know about you?

The first thing I ever did on a consist basis was write poetry, so enjoying science came later. I say this because I spend a lot of time thinking of science and medicine, but my favorite time is being creative and appreciating all forms of art. I think everyone should remember to continue their passions and do things they enjoy. Every doctor is different, just like every patient is different.