At Bigfork High School in rural Montana, Kendra Marie Harris, MD, MSc, wasn't exactly a standout. With some 90 students in her graduating class, she wasn't even in the top 10 percent. Her childhood playground may have been too much of a distraction.
"I grew up in an enormous, beautiful wonderland of nature," said Harris, whose parents owned a small mom-and-pop resort in Bigfork, located on the brow of Flathead Lake. Situated south of Glacier National Park, on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, "Flathead" is the nation's largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. "I really didn't find my wings until college ... probably the most important four years of my life."
At Grinnell College, where she graduated with honors in 2002, Harris studied global development and healthcare social policies. As a sophomore, she spent two weeks in Costa Rica, visiting clinics and studying the country's public health system. After that experience, "I was on fire," she recalled. The following summer, Harris spent two months as a paramedic in Cochabamba, Bolivia. "I worked 24 hours on, and 24 hours off for eight weeks. I knew for sure I wanted to go into medicine."
Harris was headed to medical school in 2002 when serendipity called. Named Montana's Rhodes Scholar, she completed a master's degree in comparative social policy at Oxford University in England. Her thesis focused on healthcare access for refugees and asylum seekers in in the EU. While in Europe, she met Paul Harris, a fellow American from New Smyrna Beach, Fla. They married in 2004, and moved to Baltimore, Md., for her medical studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
At the same time Harris was studying medicine, she also pursued a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins. During her rotation year, radiation oncology intrigued her. "I really liked the methodical careful process ... so I could spend my time tailoring cancer treatment," she said.
After completing her radiation oncology residency at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, where she served as chief resident her final year, Harris was selected as a fellow in Johns Hopkins' Resident Scholars Program in Patient Safety and Quality. In 2013, she earned the Frank L. Coulson Award for Clinical Excellence from Johns Hopkins.
Also in 2013, Harris began her journey as a radiation oncologist at Northwest Montana Radiation Oncology in Kalispell, the closest radiation oncology clinic to her hometown. For Harris, practicing medicine 20 minutes from Bigfork was "absolutely awesome," she said. "I loved it." In 2014, she received a 5-year appointment as NRG lead for the Montana Cancer Consortium NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) site.
Ironically, Harris overlooked one important detail in the big picture of settling down in chilly Montana. "I may have underestimated my husband's ability to deal with the climate," she said, with a laugh. "The winter was too much for him, so I started looking more seriously at jobs in Florida. Orlando Health really stood out, especially the newly created Marjorie and Leonard Williams Center for Proton Therapy. Being one of 14 cancer centers in the country to have proton therapy reflects the institution's commitment to provide the best and most cutting-edge therapies for cancer patients."
Harris joined UF Health Cancer Center-Orlando Health's Center for Advanced Radiation Therapy in 2015, specializing in head and neck, lung and gynecologic cancers. The same year, she was appointed to the NCI's Metastatic/Recurrent Task Force with the Coordinating Center for Clinical Trials.
Off duty, Harris stays quite busy with her growing family, which now includes two daughters, ages 6 and 3, and an infant son. "Outside my two main goals - delivering absolutely the best-possible team cancer care and being the best-possible partner and mother - there's not much time left over," she said. "I don't crochet. I no longer play the violin. These days, my time is squeezed. But I love it."
Since the family's relocation to New Smyrna Beach - an hour's drive from Orlando - Harris has enjoyed exploring her new playground. "This is one of the loveliest places on earth," she said, noting the move from an ultra-cold climate to a subtropical one was an easy adjustment for all but "Mo," better known as Mosley, a St. Bernard. "He's the only one," she chuckled, "upset by the move to Florida."