Neurosurgery- Dr. Odette Harris

I have never met Dr. Harris in person but as I was searching for a black female neurosurgeon for my blog series I stumbled upon her. I am not sure how many there are but I would guess the number is extremely small. Dr. Harris recently made history by being the second black female professor of neurosurgery. I emailed her and asked to interview her and she was gracious enough to take some time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer my questions. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed putting it together!

Professor of Neurosurgery, Stanford University

What made you choose medicine and why Neurosurgery specifically?

It was both a visceral and a thoughtful choice, a calling.

I chose medicine for the traditional reasons of wanting to help people and feeling like I was skilled in math and science.  Of course, as an immigrant (Jamaican), medicine held significance. I chose Neurosurgery because of the challenge, both intellectually and conceptually—quest for an understanding of the brain and to be able to impact the associated disease entities.

As a black woman in medicine, what have been your biggest challenges?

Medicine holds significant challenges common to all. At times there have been challenges common to all people of color! For example, I could list probably a hundred different experiences where I was asked to empty the garbage or take out the trays, clean out the toilets, when I was just there to use the bathroom myself. My [male] co-resident used to always say to the patient, ‘Actually, she’s our chief.’ Both gender and race have affected my day-to-day experiences working in all-white hospitals but I have felt positively about my experiences and the encouragement that I received to pursue a career in neurosurgery.

What 3 lessons would you impart to the up and coming young black female physician that you wish you had known in your training and as a young attending?

I believe I am still young (smile).

  1. Stay focused—make goals, keep them.  Remember why you went into Medicine.  Do not sacrifice excellence in clinical care and always remember the PATIENT!!!!
  2. Stay balanced– find joy, friends, family, food, fun, exercise…
  3. Build networks– do not underestimate the importance of colleagues and friends -remember that almost half of your lives will  be spent in a work environment.

What is a typical day like for you?drharris2
No such thing as a typical day for any surgeon.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

My Husband and Family.

What is your greatest or proudest moment?

Too many to choose…all family centered.

What is the best advice you have received?

  1. You can do anything.
  2. Dr. Adler taught me to say ‘no’ in a way that is effective, this applies when you’re assigned something that you feel is a dead end, that is really going to take time away from your goal of being promoted.
  3. As a leader of a diverse team, you have to be invested in learning the differences and perspectives that your team brings to the table.

Who helped shape your career?

Dr. John Adler a neurosurgery professor emeritus at Stanford was “the quintessential mentor” who helped me to develop a vision of the potential impact I could make in the world. Far too often people think that your mentor or people who inspire you need to look like you, and I think that that’s not the case.  I think it’s about inclusion and people respecting that and respecting everybody for all the talents that they bring.

How do you find balance?

In remembering that balance is relative and subjective and that you do not need to do all things at all times. 

Montego Bay, Jamaica





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