Meet Dyra Harris, director of the oncology service line with Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Skyline. It’s not unusual for patients to pinch his cheeks or rub his bald head when he walks the halls or peeks in patients’ exam rooms — and he’s okay with that. After all, he says the least he and his staff can do for patients — and their family members — battling cancer is “give them a smile.” In fact, his smile is infectious, and it’s not surprising that he and his team received a Press Ganey Guardian of Excellence Award in 2017 for outstanding performance in cancer care services. We sat down with our newest FACE of TriStar in his office filled with motivational plaques to talk about the award and a whole lot more.
As you know, we celebrate Veteran’s Day in November. What did you do in the military?
I went into the military in 1987, right out of high school. I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training and Fort Gordon, Georgia, for tactical satellite communications training. After that, I left there and spent two years in Germany. I had the opportunity to travel all over Europe. Once I got back to the states, I met the lovely lady who would become my wife. We did not marry at that point, but we both served at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 101st Airborne/Air Assault. From there, we both served in Desert Storm/Desert Shield in the first Gulf War. Then we came back, spent a year in Korea, and then I started my medical career.
What made you want to go into medicine?
Life has a funny way of just throwing you curve balls. I grew up in a very rural area of Mississippi, and when I was in middle school, my mother’s best friend died a very horrible death. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had breast cancer, and because of limited care available where we lived, she didn’t get any treatment. I watched that pain, and it was almost unbearable. My mother struggled with that for a number of years, and she actually raised her friend’s youngest daughter — that’s how close they were. After the military, I majored in biology, and I started radiology school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Part of basic radiology school is that you rotate around all the modalities of X-ray, CT, MRI and radiation oncology. I walked into radiation oncology my junior year and thought This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I wanted to play an active role in making a difference in patients’ healthcare, and I never want to see anyone go through that pain again. From the time I was 23 years old, I knew treating cancer patients was going to be my career for the rest of my life. I have dedicated the last 23 years of my life to treating and running an oncology service line. It’s my passion. It’s the reason I get up every day, because I get a chance to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s TriStar Skyline and Sarah Cannon’s mission that above all else, we are committed to the care of others and fighting cancer together. That’s also my mantra — I think it’s always been my mantra.
Which one of your office plaques is your favorite?
“Attitude” by Charles Swindoll. The first thing I do when I come to work is read this poem. You have a choice every morning of the attitude you are going to carry that day. If you see me, the person who oversees the cancer care program, walking down the hall and I’m upset and I’m frowning, what is that saying? When I see patients who are in end-stage disease, and they act as if they are imposing on us, I learn from those people and try to live my life that way. We all have choices every day. What you say and what you do affects other people, and I hope I have had a positive influence on each person I come into contact with. Each person that walks through the door, whether they have a life-altering diagnosis or we are just treating them for a benign tumor, they have an influence on my life. When they are smiling and when they are saying, “Hey, I’ll see you tomorrow — another day,” then how can I get upset because I had a bad night? If I can display a positive attitude, it permeates throughout this whole department. I know it’s effective because last year, Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Skyline won the Guardian of Excellence Award. We maintained a 96% patient satisfaction rating for the entire year, and it’s because we put our patients first. We understand that not only are they going through cancer, their families are going through it, and the least we can do is give them a smile. Attitude is the most important thing to me because it sets my foundation.
Was receiving the award one of the proudest moments in your career?
I think I’m most humbled by our employee satisfaction scores. We have extremely high employee engagement scores that I attribute to my employees seeing their career as a calling. When I see my secretaries, the nurses, the radiation therapists, the physicist, dosimetrist and the doctors interact with patients, it is obvious that their calling is cancer treatment. We talk about how we are going to cope with someone with cancer if you think they are struggling. It’s not about us feeling sorry for them; it’s about us walking this journey with them. I’m proud that we’ve assembled a team at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Skyline that has that calling in life and that we’re treating cancer patients, and you see smiles everywhere in our dedicated oncology spaces.
November is also Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Talk about the progress Sarah Cannon at TriStar Skyline is making against lung cancer.
Lung cancer — certainly in the South and in Tennessee — is one of our biggest opportunities for enhancing access to cutting-edge treatments for our patients. For years, patients were coming to us with Stage 4 lung cancer with poor prognoses. We have now put a program in place where the goal is to move 3A and 3B patients down to Stage 1 and 2 because when you’re talking about Stage 1 and 2 diagnosis, you’re talking about better outcomes. TriStar Skyline, together with Sarah Cannon, have put a program in place here, where if a patient comes through the ER and if they have a cold, or even trauma, and we do a chest CT scan, and we find an incidental lung nodule, we could then begin the process of identifying that patient risk for lung cancer. We talk to that patient’s primary care provider and begin the process of getting them a higher level of care. We are very hands-on with patients who may not have even known they had lung cancer, which could lead to early diagnosis. If we have an opportunity to find a disease in early stages, we have a chance to cure those patients, and that changes the whole paradigm. Over time, in the next three or four years, I want to see results that say the average person who comes to TriStar Skyline with lung cancer has Stage 1 and Stage 2 disease. Now that’s a big lift, but that’s where we are headed.
What advice do you have for cancer prevention?
Here’s the caveat I always give: You can be the most fit human being on the earth and grow your own vegetables, but because of genetic factors, you can still get cancer. The question is how to lower the risk factors. You stay healthy. You get screened early. You go to your primary care doctor. You know your body better. When you go in the doctor’s office, you fill out all those forms because we’re trying to put a puzzle together. If we know your genetic history, that’s part of your risk factors, and then if we know what you’re doing, that’s another piece of the puzzle that tells us what your risk factors are.
For example, women need to have pelvic exams, mammograms and, if you’re over 45, a colon screening. All of those things will allow medical professionals to find disease early, and again, if we find disease early, then we are more successful [in curing it]. If one of your family members had colon cancer, then we would say you have a higher genetic factor for cancer, and we may need to screen you at an earlier age.
What else would you like to add about TriStar Skyline and Sarah Cannon?
What I love about TriStar Skyline is that the leaders have invested time and energy into seeing the oncology service line grow. Sarah Cannon as The Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare — is constantly working to improve the standard of care for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Bringing together programs, researchers and operational leaders across its network, Sarah Cannon spans across the US and UK seeing hundreds of thousands of patients each year – a number unmatched by any single cancer center. We have a huge network of information that is shared across Sarah Cannon that improves our care locally. We have access to clinical trials through Sarah Cannon Research Institute at Tennessee Oncology that offer the latest cutting-edge treatment options to patients in our region.
We want the most brilliant minds in oncology and radiology sitting around a table discussing what’s best for you before we involve you in that care. This environment is conducive to making a difference. Our administration, our staff and our cancer care team — I can’t say enough the department that I sit in every day with Sarah Cannon at TriStar Skyline — each and every person in here gets up every day to make a difference. This is the reason I come into work every morning. When I’m not here, it keeps going. Going back to what I’m most proud of, I know that I can walk away tomorrow, and it keeps rolling.
Thank you, Dyra, for your contagious positivity and the passion that drives your work. Learn more about Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Skyline here.
This article is sponsored by TriStar Health. To learn more about the services offered by TriStar Health and to find a TriStar Health facility near you, visit tristarhealth.com. All photography by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.