Terri Gillespie, left, chief nursing officer, receives a hug from Dr. Janet Harris after sharing stories about the former interim CEO at Harris' retirement celebration.
Terri Gillespie, left, chief nursing officer, receives a hug from Dr. Janet Harris after sharing stories about the former interim CEO at the School of Nursing's retirement celebration.
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‘Before her time:’ Former interim CEO leaves lasting impact on UMMC

Published on Monday, June 3, 2019

By: Kate Royals

Seven-year-old Janet Harris was fascinated with Florence Nightingale.

“She was so before her time,” Harris said of the revolutionary nurse who improved unsanitary conditions at a British base hospital during the Crimean war and initiated widespread health care reform.

As a child, Harris’ mother would take her to the library in Louisville every week, and Harris would check out new medical books to read – some about Nightingale. The librarian was suspicious such a young girl was actually reading the books, so she started asking Harris questions about them.

She was impressed to learn Harris knew the answers, and she called up the local newspaper, the Winston County Journal. The paper ran a story about Harris with the headline: “Seven-year-old reads for joy of it.”

“Surprisingly, the feminine-looking little girl much prefers scientific books, reading such books as The Wonder World of Science, The First Book of Nursing and This is My Country with the same absorbed interest that other children reserve for T.V. shoot-em-ups,” the article reads.

Like Nightingale, Harris was also before her time. 

27-year-old Assistant Director of Nursing Janet Harris, front row on the far right, poses with other administrators at UMMC in the late 1970s.
In this late 1970s photo, Dr. Janet Harris, front row, right, is pictured as an assistant director of nursing along with other UMMC administrators.

It is no surprise that Harris went on to graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Nursing in 1974 and rise to the top ranks of hospital administration. She served for a year and a half as interim CEO of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2011, the first nurse and woman to serve in the role. Her nursing career has spanned 45 years, almost 25 of them at UMMC.

Portrait of James Keeton

“She personifies everything good about a nurse,” said Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine from 2009 to 2015. “She’s caring, and the only answer to any question is ‘Yes, I can take care of this problem.’”

Harris has a strong track record of stepping up during difficult times. When Harris was chief nursing executive officer, Batson Children’s Hospital lost its chief nurse. She agreed to step in, and shortly after, the adult hospital lost its CNO. She did an interim stint in that position at the adult hospital, juggling the responsibilities of three different positions.

“That was a job that she took on at my request when we were in dire need of some leadership for a while. And that was a tough role,” Keeton recalled.

Harris would come through for Keeton again while in her role as professor of nursing and associate dean for practice and community engagement in the School of Nursing. Keeton had visited Lanier High School and was determined to figure out a way for UMMC to help the students there have better access to health care.

Harris and Dr. Kim Hoover, dean of the School of Nursing from 2003 to last year, met with Keeton after his visit.

“He (Keeton) said, ‘Can you make this happen?’ and I said ‘Yes, sir.’ We opened the (Lanier Teen Wellness) clinic in the fall of that same year,” Harris recalled.

Janet Harris hula hoops at Taste of the U, an annual culinary event that benefited the UMMC Alliance's Patient Needs Fund.
Harris displays her hula hoop skills at Taste of the U, an annual culinary event that benefited the UMMC Alliance's Patient Needs Fund.

The first day she visited Lanier, a woman working with the Peace Corps at the school grabbed her and said she had five sick students with no transportation and no medical professional to see them.

“I got the nurse practitioner (at UNACARE) on the phone and … we got every single one of them seen and taken care of that day,” Harris said. “One had acute bronchitis, one had a sexually transmitted infection – they really needed care.”

Harris’ history of coming through for the right reasons extends beyond UMMC. Devon Loggins, president and CEO of Methodist Children’s Home of Mississippi, has worked with Harris for years.

As a result, many around her agree she is impossible to say no to.

“She’ll get you to do things you never thought you could do,” Loggins, who joined with other community members and UMMC employees at a School of Nursing retirement reception Friday, said.

During Harris’ time at the School of Nursing, another school-based clinic was added at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork. Harris was involved in the creation of the Midtown Mobile Clinic and the UNACARE Mobile Clinic, ambulance-sized vehicles equipped for nurse practitioners to provide health screenings to people in the Midtown community.

She also helped with the creation of Lanier’s Academy of Health Services, a program run in conjunction with UMMC that provides students with hands-on training through the donation of a retired ambulance by American Medical Response. Those in the Academy can be certified as an emergency responder by the time they graduate high school.

Harris said when she moved from hospital administration to the School of Nursing in 2014 and began working with kids in underserved communities, she had an “awakening.”

“I now believe the future of this country – and actually the world – rests in those kids. What they learn, how they’re educated, what kind of resources they have, what kind of health-promoting behaviors they learn at a young age,” she said.

Her work was fueled by this sentiment: “Seeing ones that have no resources is just more than I can stand.”

Before working with the School of Nursing, however, she spent more than 30 years in hospital administration. She began her first administrative role at the young age of 27, the youngest in such a position at the time.

She credits learning from Rose McKellar, the former UMMC assistant director of nursing, and Dr. Wallace Conerly, then medical director of the intensive care unit at UMMC.

“She (McKellar) taught me all the things I didn’t know about management and leadership … They brought me up right,” she recalled.

After a stint away from UMMC at Baptist Medical Center, Harris returned to UMMC as the chief nursing executive officer. She was encouraged by Dr. Mart McMullan, then special advisor to the vice chancellor, who wanted Harris to decentralize the nursing services and grow nursing leaders – which proved to be a perfect fit for Harris, who had done similar work at Baptist.

She always encouraged and motivated those who worked for her. Every one of her direct reports at both Baptist and UMMC, with the exception of one nurse who was retiring, pursued a master’s degree. Several went on to get doctoral degrees. 

Janet Harris poses with Christy Barrick, then a nurse in intensive care, after a morning working alongside her on the hospital floor.
Harris, left, poses with Christy Barrick, then an intensive care nurse.

One of her most cherished memories during her time as an administrator was when she and her colleagues selected an employee on the front lines to work alongside in the hospital. They would choose a random name from a bowl of employees who had received commendations, and one week Harris selected Christy Barrick, now a nurse practitioner in the surgical intensive care unit.

Barrick was working in the intensive care unit, and Harris spent one morning working alongside her.

“There was a lady that had tubes and IVs everywhere, and I remember so vividly rubbing that patient’s feet because I’d been out of clinical so long,” Harris recalled.

At times, Barrick would try to jump in to take over some of the basic hygienic tasks, but Harris refused to let her.

“To be able to stand side by side with those nurses providing that level of care, it brings tears to my eyes. Those are bonding experiences I’ll never forget,” she said.

Harris embraced every leadership role she entered with the same philosophy. She learned an important lesson when she served as a Magnet Commissioner with the American Nurses Credentialing Center: shared governance, or decision making, was a crucial factor in determining whether a hospital would be a place nurses would want to work.

Dr. LaDonna Northington, center, professor of nursing, poses with Cindy Luther, left, and Harris.

“That means nurses that practice make decisions about how they practice, not the CNO sitting in her office issuing edicts on how things are going to happen,” she explained. “I wanted to be there to serve others and knock down the barriers that got in the way of them doing their job.”

While CNEO, Harris had a close working relationship with the nursing school, another point of pride in her career.

“The hospital and the school did a lot of things collaboratively: offering an externship, residency, publishing a joint annual report,” she described. “When I identified that our nurse managers weren’t appropriately prepared to manage because they’d never been taught how, we contracted with the School of Nursing to provide a management development program for new nurse managers that was very successful.”

For now, she will turn her energies to new people and places: serving as the vice chair of the board of the Methodist Children’s Homes of Mississippi; chairing next year’s American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women; serving on the March of Dimes’ National Volunteer Leadership Council; and remaining connected with the School of Nursing as professor emeritus.

She also plans to spend more time with her granddaughters, who are nine and four years old. 

Harris’ legacy at UMMC will undoubtedly be the nurses, patients and children she has worked with. But it is also the institution as a whole.

“She is instrumental in making UMMC what it is today,” said Dr. Will Ferniany, former associate vice chancellor and chief executive officer of UMMC. “Janet has set a high standard for those worked with her and for her students as to what it means to be a great nurse.”