Friendship brought Harmon’s career back to where it started
Published on Monday, May 14, 2018
By: Annie Oeth
The medical career of Dr. Edwin Harmon has come full circle, taking him, at the height of his vocation, back to where it first began.
The professor and division chief of pediatric urology plans to retire later this year from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the place where he served his medical residency.
“It’s all come back around,” laughed Harmon, a native of Church Point, Louisiana, a small
town near Lafayette.
Harmon’s path to UMMC and Children’s of Mississippi all began with the friendship of two Southerners serving as naval medical officers in Illinois, caring for soldiers during the waning days of the Vietnam War.
Friends in the making
Harmon, in 1972 a naval medical officer specializing in anesthesia at Great Lakes Naval Station, met Dr. James Keeton, a surgeon and urologist with plans to move into pediatrics once his military duty was fulfilled.
“We became friends,” said Harmon, who had wanted to be a pediatric specialist since high school. “I had always liked kids, and I wanted to be a surgeon. Through our friendship, I learned about UMMC, and that’s where I did my residency after my naval service.”
Keeton and Harmon’s relationship has woven together the personal and professional.
“Ed Harmon is a special guy,” said Keeton, “and he’s a real asset to Mississippi and to UMMC.”
Later, after residency, Harmon did his fellowship in pediatric urology at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children in London, the same place Keeton did his fellowship.
Before crossing the Atlantic, though, Harmon met and married his wife Susan, in 1978.
“She was a new surgical nurse at the VA, and I saw her when I was coming out of surgery,” he said.
For Harmon, it was love at first sight. “I saw her and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl one day.’”
The two are parents of a son and a daughter and have three grandchildren with one on the way in late spring. This year, the Harmons celebrate 40 years of happy marriage.
After returning from his fellowship, Harmon began work in pediatric urology at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, serving on the clinical faculty at LSU and Tulane medical schools and earning the title of associate medical director of surgical services at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans.
“I was in no mindset to leave Children’s Hospital of New Orleans,” he said. “I thought I was going to retire from there.”
During the Harmons’ years in New Orleans, they faced the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We boarded up and left the Sunday morning before Katrina hit. We ended up in Lufkin, Texas, which was the first place we could find a room. We thought we would be spending the night and then coming back home. Instead, we ended up staying with my sister in Baton Rouge for six weeks.”
At the time, their children were attending college at Texas Christian University and the University of Mississippi, putting them both out of harm’s way.
During those weeks, a pass was required to enter East Jefferson Parish, and Harmon and his wife would drive the 80 or so miles from Baton Rouge to East Jefferson General Hospital, where he was on the medical staff. “We’d leave when it got dark because there was no power in the city.”
While the Harmons’ house didn’t flood, roof damage from the hurricane meant the couple had rain pouring into their home. “We had to tear out sheetrock and redo the floors. It was livable, though, so we were able to clean up and still live there.”
The devastation was painful to watch, he said. “Everyone’s belongings were out on their front lawns, grandfather clocks, baby grand pianos, and it would be scooped up and taken away in dump trucks.”
Dr. Keeton calling
About two years later, Harmon, who was still quite happy in New Orleans, got a call from his friend and colleague, James Keeton, who was looking to recruit a pediatric urologist to Batson Children’s Hospital and the School of Medicine at UMMC.
“At first, I told Dr. Keeton no, that I wasn’t interested in leaving New Orleans,” Harmon said. “But he asked me to just come over and take a tour.”
Harmon remembered the Children’s Hospital at UMMC from the days when he was a resident. Built in 1968, the hospital building was replaced in 1997 with Batson Children’s Hospital. Then less than 10 years old, Batson drew his interest.
The Harmons discussed the move. “Susan said, ‘OK, we’ll put a sign in the front yard. If it sells, we’ll move. If it doesn’t, we won’t.’ The house was sold within 30 days.”
“We’ve come a long way,” he said of Children’s of Mississippi and Batson’s growth and the planned children’s tower now under construction, “and we’re coming a long way.”
Dr. Christopher Blewett, chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery, began work at UMMC the same day as Harmon, and they’ve been working together ever since.
“I think the world of Ed,” Blewett said. “His extraordinary clinical competence and willingness to serve as a leader at UMMC have been invaluable.”
In 2015, the connection between Harmon and Keeton became even stronger, when Friends of Children’s Hospital surprised Keeton, former vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, with the principal gift to establish the James E. Keeton, M.D. Chair of Pediatric Urology. Harmon was named as the first recipient.
After receiving the medal from Woodward and Keeton, Harmon said he was humbled by the honor and joked, "This is my Academy Award."
He recounted the events that led to his return to the Medical Center in 2007, saying "I'm a great believer that God directs us if we just let him direct us."
Harmon is still open to taking divine direction but hopes to return to UMMC after his formal retirement to continue teaching residents.
“Working with the residents is what stimulates me,” he said. “It is gratifying to see the residents in surgery who, at the beginning, don’t have much use of their hands, and seeing them progress along and become surgeons. It’s extremely satisfying.”
Keeton said he is proud to see Harmon hold the chair that bears his name. “When you think of the word ‘physician,’ Ed Harmon exemplifies it,” he said. “It’s an honor to know him.”