Service to his profession, country and community are all chairs where Dr. Gerald Harmon takes great care to take a seat.
Harmon, a board-certified physician with Tidelands Waccamaw Family Medicine in Pawleys Island and vice president of Georgetown-based Tidelands Health Group, will spend the next year as chairman of the board for the American Medical Association’s board of trustees. The AMA, based in Chicago, has more than 200,000 members and publishes a weekly medical journal.
Since beginning his practice of medicine in 1983 in Georgetown County, Harmon has served in leadership roles for the S.C. Medical Association, volunteered for such entities as the Georgetown County School District as medical director, and received the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award. From his time in uniform, the Meritorious Service, Air Force Commendation and Humanitarian Service medals are among many other honors.
Harmon reflected his whole heart when fielding questions about his lifetime of service in multiple spheres.
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Q: The American Medical Association's work since 1847 has made a difference not just nationwide, but for people around the world. With your ascension to the chairman’s post, what's the greatest honor to which you have contributed your heart and work through the years?
A: I fell in love with medicine because it gives me the opportunity to help improve my patients’ lives. That’s always been my passion, and it will always be the most rewarding aspect of my professional career.
I sometimes have the chance to speak to new doctors and medical students, and I always offer the same refrain: When you choose a career in medicine, you have to do it because it’s in your heart. Perhaps that sounds corny or cliche, but it’s true.
Serving as chairman of the AMA is a great honor, because it gives me the opportunity to positively influence medicine on a large scale. But there’s no substitute for the sense of joy and satisfaction that comes with helping individual patients.
Q: In your practice of medicine in multiple realms for almost 3 1/2 decades, what advances in your field have surprised you the most – in timing and what might have been once written off as sheer imagination and dreaming – and what development do you view as still the most elusive, but with the best chance of conquering?
A: The practice of medicine has improved tremendously over the last four decades. Arterial angioplasty and the stenting of the vessels of the heart, lower brain and the gastrointestinal tract have had a major impact on the quality and longevity of life without major open surgery. Imaging technology such as CT scans, high-resolution MRI and PET scans have also been major advancements. They allow us to confirm diagnoses without risking exploratory surgery, a common practice when I was a young doctor.
As far as what we thought was sheer imagination – most of us clinicians were skeptical when researchers in the late 1970s began seriously suggesting that a “germ” could be a major cause of ulcers. At the time, it was widely believed that stress, smoking and eating spicy foods were the primary causes. But it turns out those researchers were right. As a result, the treatment protocol for ulcer disease has changed dramatically for the better.
As far as ulcer disease, by the way, the most common operation performed by general surgeons 35 years ago was to operate for gastrointestinal tract bleeding. I’d estimate that about 25 percent of my adult patients had mid-line scars to reflect that surgery. It’s a type of surgery that was prevalent until cimetidine (Tagamet) was introduced, followed a few years later by omeprazole (Prilosec). Those medicines have allowed us to treat many patients without invasive surgery.
Q: Are some steps forthcoming in research for such widespread diseases as Alzheimer’s research or in fighting pancreatic cancer? Those two maladies have gotten more public attention of late.
A: Pancreatic cancer remains a devastating diagnosis. We have made significant progress in treating cancers of the large and small intestines, but pancreatic cancer advances remain elusive.
Alzheimer’s disease has gotten increased attention as the population of our country has aged. I have confidence that as we continue to gather more data and increase our ability to study the brains of memory-impaired patients, we might be able to treat, if not fully prevent, Alzheimer’s disease.
Q: Reflecting as a retired Air Force major general, serving personnel on battlegrounds from the start of the 1990s in Kuwait into the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan: What does it mean to have taken your career around the world to help in scenes that would be so hard for so many people to imagine but who have gotten more awareness and understanding in helping appreciate everything that our men and women in uniform step into with such bravery and unselfishness?
A: An important question that strikes a very personal chord. I’m incredibly proud of the advances we’ve made treating injured troops over the past three decades. We’ve reduced the time it takes to move injured personnel to major health care facilities from weeks to less than 24 hours. As a result, survival rates have improved from 78 percent in World War II to more than 98 percent in the current southeast Asia conflicts.
Contact Steve Palisin at 843-444-1764.