Education Spotlight

Kountz Fellowship recipient traces path from ‘lost cause’ to medical school

By Tracie White

 James Harris
James Harris

James Harris’ childhood dream of becoming a doctor more than faded by the age of 15. It became something of a joke. Raised on welfare by his grandmother, he was failing high school and his 16-year-old girlfriend Rosina was pregnant.

“I was about to have a kid, I turned 16 and I moved out on my own,” said Harris. “The school was like, ‘OK, this guy is a lost cause.’”

Thirteen years later, at the age of 28, Harris will graduate from UCLA medical school in June. He is married to Rosina, and they now have three children ages 13, 10 and 5.

On Dec. 15, Harris completed a four-week sub-internship at Stanford, the first to be awarded to a medical student through the surgery department’s new Samuel L. Kountz Diversity Fellowship. The fellowship was set up to fund a sub-internship for a medical student from an underrepresented minority group. Harris is African American.

“James Harris is one of the truly most outstanding medical students in the country,” said Oscar Salvatierra, MD, professor emeritus of surgery and of pediatrics, who helped set up the fellowship. Salvatierra did his surgical training under Kountz, who was the first African-American surgical resident at Stanford. The fellowship is one of two new awards given in honor of Kountz and designed to encourage diversity in the surgical training program.

Ilene Wong, a resident at Stanford, was awarded $1,000 in June as the first winner of the Samuel L. Kountz Humanitarian Award for her work battling AIDS in Africa.

“We’re trying to promote the high standards of humanitarianism lived by Sam Kountz,” explained Salvatierra. A native of Arkansas who battled racism and prejudice to rise meteorically through the field of organ transplantation, Kountz is best remembered for his compassion and sensitivity, particularly to the suffering of patients with end-stage renal disease and the socioeconomic challenges they faced in their efforts to get treatment.

Harris battled his own socioeconomic challenges to finally make his childhood dream a reality. It was a counselor at the independent high school where he transferred his sophomore year in high school who helped turn things around. That, and the sudden responsibility of having a family to support.

“That baby was a huge motivation,” Harris said. “I had to provide for my family. If it wasn’t for that, I would probably be either dead or in jail like a lot of my friends.”

He explained to his new counselor that he couldn’t go to college because he didn’t have any money, so what was the point in going to high school? The counselor took the time to explain scholarships and discuss other options.

“Nobody had ever mentioned that before,” Harris said. “After that, everything just kind of flipped around.”

Not that the path from high school failure to UCLA medical school student was easy by any means. Through the rest of high school and during his college years at Fresno State University, Harris continued to work 40 to 60 hours to support his family. And he had to scramble to catch up. His education was lacking. He didn’t even know how to add fractions.

Harris credits the incredible support of his wife for keeping him going. By the time he got into medical school though, things finally eased up a bit. “Medical school was a breeze,” Harris said. “It was my full-time job. My only job. I’ve been able to spend more time with my family. It’s been some of the best years of my life.”

Harris is now in the process of interviewing for residency placement, with Stanford among his top choices.

“There’s no way I could have afforded the sub-internship at Stanford without the Kountz fellowship,” Harris said. It’s given him a chance to experience what a residency would be like at Stanford.

“It’s a great thing that they named the fellowship after Dr. Kountz. I’m very proud it was given to me.”

Posted: 12/18/06

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