In our latest Profile of Courage, a young North Carolina physician associate (PA) finds himself monitoring juvenile COVID-19 patients quarantined at border patrol and embracing the challenge to serve kids in need.
For Todd Harris, completing his MPAS in 2020 and then starting as a physician associate at CaroMont Regional Medical Center in Gastonia, N.C. plants a long-awaited milestone on his journey toward a fulfilling career in health care.
“Health care was something I decided on when I was 14 or 15, and I got more focused on my academics,” Harris explains. “I wanted to be able to treat more patients, especially those who spoke Spanish, so I double-majored in Biology and Spanish in college and studied abroad in Spain [for fluency].” His prescience turned out to be a gamechanger for him almost immediately.
Like most new graduates and jobseekers, Harris set-up job board profiles and reached out to recruiters during his initial search. He happily accepted a PRN position at CaroMont, but some of his previous queries and hiring information still floated around job sites. When he received a message urgently seeking additional, Spanish-speaking health care staff for a special short-term contract project, he responded out of curiosity and concern. Based on some of the information given, he suspected the position could be a response to the immigrant population along the Texas border.
His intuition proved accurate as the recruiter’s immediate reply conveyed an intense demand while remaining elusive on specific details.
“All I knew was rapid deployment to either San Antonio or El Paso,” he says. “I assumed it could be [border patrol] because of what was going on, but I didn’t know for sure… it happened really fast. I cleared everything with my ApolloMD team before I left—I really enjoy working with ApolloMD, it’s an awesome experience.”
Arrangements finalized, Harris traveled to Texas in early April and began a unique endeavor as part of the border patrol COVID-19 response team.
HELPING MIGRANT CHILDREN IN QUARANTINE IS NO SMALL ADJUSTMENT
Every facet of this assignment includes a notable shift from his usual routine. “My typical day starts a little bit differently,” Harris chuckles. “I’m so used to being in the hospital setting. I had no idea that I was going to be on a military base in huge tents. There’s a shuttle bus that takes us to the base. We get scanned, get checked in, have a huddle, and then we disperse to our respective tents.”
The vital necessity of his presence then imparts as he describes his specific duties. “I’ve been manning the COVID-19 boys’ tent. I think we have 400 kids right now in the tent. It’s pretty packed,” Harris reports. “Most of them are about 15-16 years old with the youngest I’ve seen around 12. I’m one of two or three providers there to handle acute cases, or what might have gone to the main medical tent if they weren’t in quarantine.”
His initial learning curve now successfully rounded, Harris follows the familiar rhythm of triage and treatment common to any other clinic. “It’s a pretty good system. I can do an assessment right there on the spot and treat them with anything they need,” he commends.
“Acute care treatment has been mostly COVID-19-related such as sore throat, runny nose, cough—pretty routine stuff for the most part, but also some acute otitis media and other infections, including one with an abscess I treated for a week. If it’s an infection, I can get them proper antibiotics.”
SUPPORTING TEENAGERS IN QUARANTINE
The circumstances from which his patients originate may vary slightly from child to child, but the end goal remains common as they all set their focus on reuniting with family. “Once they come to this tent, they’re hanging with us for the standard quarantine time,” Harris explains. “Then from there, they’re able to go on to family they have here in the United States, if their social workers have everything ready for them to go. We try to get them out on time, making sure that they’re healthy and feeling much better. If everything is set up for them, they then go on, or if not, they go back to the general population.”
Harris admits he’s learned the most about the logistics of these individual situations from talking to the children. “If they don’t have family, it’s a little more difficult to find placement. But all of them that I’ve spoken to have family here and are just waiting on the social worker to process information,” he notes.
“They came here because they have a connection in the States. The largest majority of those I’ve treated come from Guatemala, and some also from Honduras, El Salvador, and other parts of Central America. To get here, they tell me, takes a lot of walking and a lot of bus rides.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HELP IS
As part of his quality-care plan for these patients, Harris incorporates the power of presence—listening to the kids, seeing them for who they are, and honoring the courage they’ve shown.
“They’re great kids, so well-behaved, especially considering they’re in quarantine,” he praises. “They aren’t scared. Some were upset when they got COVID-19 because they’d been scheduled to leave, to fly out to their families, and then they got quarantined and it added 10 days to their stay.”
He enjoys the opportunity to learn more about them and connect with them, even if for a short time. “Last night when I got into work things weren’t too busy and, in what speaks to how large these tents are, I was able to play a little bit of soccer with the boys in a section of the tent. That was so fun, and they really enjoyed and appreciated it,” he recounts.
“I’ll usually bring them playing cards and stuff to help with their stay. I’ve been walking to the dollar store near my hotel and stocking up. It’s not a big deal for me to give these kids some things to help the time go by for them.”
Harris recognizes that the impact of this experience will resonate with everyone for a lifetime.
“I’m just blown away by their demeanor and how well everything is going. It’s been really rewarding to be a part of,” he says. “They are excited, and they know they are one step closer to being with family.”
A COMPASSIONATE CONNECTION
His own family instilled in him both a powerful sense of empathy and a predilection for serving others. “My parents really pushed that you look out for people when you can and never look down on anyone,” he says. “They always said that if you have more it’s meant to be shared, so, do the right thing and help.”
For Harris and his family, those words are supported by concrete action. “These were things always taught to me and then I saw it lived out in front of me. When we moved [from Miami] to Raleigh, we had what I considered a large house at the time,” he shares. “My parents welcomed various people to live with us when they needed help to get on their feet. My parents always opened their doors to everyone. I always looked at this as being important.”
The lessons from their examples informed his decisions about his future. “Ultimately, I ended up where I am now… I’m doing what I love for all the reasons that are important to me. I learned Spanish to be able to help the Spanish-speaking population, I wanted to serve anyone less fortunate, and I wanted to be in health care,” he confirms.
“All of the ways I wanted to use my knowledge and skills are here, all wrapped up into one. I can’t believe I get to do this! I’m so grateful to be here and to have this opportunity.”