A Look at a Leader: Tara Harris, M.D.
“It’s certainly a field that is very emotionally challenging, but it’s also a field that is very easy to be passionate about."
Tara Harris, M.D., knew early on that she wanted a career that involved caring for children. “I’ve always enjoyed working with kids,” says the medical director of the Pediatric Center of Hope at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, which offers medical evaluations and counseling for children who have experienced sexual abuse. “When I was in college at the University of Illinois, I volunteered at a center that offered shelter for children who didn’t have homes or were removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and I developed a passion for that group of kids.”
Once Dr. Harris got to medical school at the Indiana University School of Medicine, she discovered that not only could she pursue pediatrics, but also that she could further specialize in child abuse pediatrics. “As soon as I found out about the subspecialty — which was established in 2006 and is fairly new — I was immediately drawn to it,” says Dr. Harris. “After my pediatric residency here, I stayed at IU for a three-year fellowship in child abuse pediatrics, so I could advocate for kids who are at the greatest risk and who really need a voice.”
In 2010, after completing her fellowship training, Dr. Harris signed on as an attending child abuse pediatrician at IU Health, where she now works with the only four other board-certified child abuse pediatricians in the state of Indiana. The team of five doctors, two nurse practitioners, two nurses, and three social workers make up the medical staff of the IU Child Protection Program (IUCPP). The Pediatric Center of Hope is one of the programs within the IUCPP. Patients can access the program’s services either through the outpatient clinic at Riley, or through the emergency department at IU Health.
“The Pediatric Center of Hope has a new space attached to the ER department—our own separate section away from the hustle and bustle,” says Dr. Harris. There is a dedicated room exclusively for patients in need of emergency medical evaluations and crisis counseling in instances of sexual abuse. “The exams can take three or four hours so we wanted the space to be as welcoming as possible to the families as we try to meet their needs in what is clearly a very stressful time,” says Dr. Harris. The area also includes a state-of-the-art facility to handle forensic evidence and a space for investigators.
Workdays for Dr. Harris are rarely predictable. “Things are different day to day: If I’m on call, then I’m here in the hospital seeing kids; some days I’m in the outpatient clinic; and about three days a month I’m in court testifying about cases of child abuse,” says Dr. Harris. “I also do a lot of education and outreach—educating various medical professionals, law enforcement teams, childcare workers, and schools about the signs and symptoms that may be red flags for child abuse.”
Though Dr. Harris acknowledges that the days can be strenuous, she loves her work. “It’s certainly a field that is very emotionally challenging, but it’s also a field that is very easy to be passionate about,” she says. It also helps to have a strong team. “I think it’s important to have colleagues you can lean on and talk to and laugh with— and try to find bright spots in the day; that’s a huge factor in avoiding burnout. But really, there is no room to feel sorry for yourself in this field. You are faced with kids who deal with so much adversity that it really puts everything else in perspective.”
To keep things in perspective, Dr. Harris says that she makes sure to spend time with her family and do things outside of the hospital. But even her off-duty time is spent helping others: Dr. Harris founded a special needs dog rescue called Every Dog Counts Rescue (EDCR.org), which she runs with help from her mother and boyfriend. “Nearly all of our dogs come from animal control, and we focus on dogs who are sick, injured, orphaned, or elderly,” says Dr. Harris. “Animal control has me on speed dial. So when they have an injured dog, they call me and I get them to the vet. The dogs often stay with me until they’re medically stabilized, and then we move them to another foster home.” The organization took in about 350 dogs and cats last year alone.
Dr. Harris also has eight dogs of her own. “I say only half jokingly that they are part of my therapy,” she says. “There is something very therapeutic about coming home at the end of a long day to all these happy, wagging tails greeting me.”
Whether taking care of her animal patients or her human patients, Dr. Harris knows that a supportive and loving environment can facilitate healing, and she is intent on having as big an impact as possible. “The Pediatric Center of Hope program has been growing in recent years, and I want to continue to find creative ways to help serve kids all over the state.”
If anyone has the determination to make that happen, it’s Dr. Harris.
-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman