One sun-spangled fall day in the mid-1970s, she and her father made the four-hour trip from Mercer County, W.Va., to Morgantown to watch Bluefield High’s two-time, All-State running back Dwayne Woods play for the Mountaineers.
Time has muddied the details of the day, but the impression has remained.
“I fell in love with WVU,” Harris says. “It was the atmosphere and the energy. It was the beautiful fall day, the brown and gold and red leaves.”
So when it came time to pick a college, Harris chose WVU. It wasn’t an easy decision. Her father is one of 10 children, and six of his siblings stayed in Bluefield to raise their kids. Growing up as an only child, Harris’ cousins doubled as surrogate siblings and best friends, and her weekends were filled with Friday night football – she was a majorette – and Sunday night dinners.
She was the first of her sprawling, extended family to trade the comfort of Bluefield for the hustle of Morgantown.
Fourteen years later, in 1992, she marked another milestone as the only African-American member of her WVU medical school graduating class. More than 60 – yes, 60 – family members made the trek north to cheer her on from the audience.
Those early “firsts” and “onlys” were significant, but, as it turns out, they were just the preamble to June 2018, when Dr. Patrice Harris became the first – and, thus far, the only – African-American woman to be elected president-elect of the American Medical Association.
“It is the pinnacle, and the privilege of a lifetime, to be elected,” Harris says.
She’s aware of how this latest milestone can affect younger generations. Throughout her career, she rarely saw anyone who looked like her: There were few African-American women in medicine to model herself after. Just before medical school she met a female, African-American psychiatrist, and it was the first time she saw who she wanted to be represented in the flesh. She is quite aware that she may be in the position to fill that role for someone else, saying, “It’s a role I relish, I appreciate and I take seriously.”
Of course, this isn’t the only impressive line on her resume. You don’t get selected to lead the country’s largest association of physicians without a few accomplishments under your proverbial belt.
After earning three degrees from WVU (BA ’82, Psychology, MA ’86, Counseling Psychology, MD ’92), Harris completed her post-doctoral training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta. It was during that residency that she joined a group of psychiatrists to advocate for health-related policies at the Georgia capitol.
“I learned that day how critical it was to be involved in policy,” Harris says.
Since then, she has dedicated much of her career to advocacy, including stints as a lobbyist for the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and a senior policy fellow and lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law. She’s also worked in public health for Fulton County, Ga., and served in a number of leadership roles with the American Psychiatric Association, the Medical Association of Georgia and the American Medical Association Foundation Board of Directors.
Much of her work, whether clinical or advocacy, has been centered on children, which isn’t surprising given that her dream as a child was to become a pediatrician. Children’s health is an issue she’ll continue to pursue in her time as AMA president. Because, although her role is to serve as the chief spokesperson for the policies of the association, each president brings his or her own experiences and passions to the position.
She’ll also continue to serve as the chair of the AMA Opioid Task Force, a role she recognizes is crucial to the Appalachian region from which she hails. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2016, West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the country.
“It’s a multifaceted epidemic that has not spared any part of the country or any demographic,” she says. “It cannot be treated as a one-size-fits-all epidemic.”
But given her background in public health and her affinity for trailblazing, it’s a challenge for which Harris believes she is especially suited.
“When you are the first or the only or both, there are a lot of challenges,” she says. “I never want people to think it was easy. It was a long haul. There were challenges. But you accept the wonderful opportunities you’re given, get through the challenges you face and surround yourself with folks you know will tell you the truth.”
For Harris, that has meant keeping her roots planted firmly in West Virginia soil, staying in constant contact with her biological and University families and returning to the state as often as she can.
Her seat on the WVU Foundation Board of Directors helps. For each meeting she is required to attend, she flies into Pittsburgh and drives the 80 miles into West Virginia, delighting as the Mon Valley gives way to the mountain views of her childhood.
Harris sighs. “I love that drive.”