When she started medical school, Dr. Brianna Harris thought she’d become a pediatrician. But during a clinical rotation, she discovered a love for surgery, especially procedures of the head and neck.
“They always had the coolest cases,” says Dr. Harris.
Today, Dr. Harris is one of only about 50 female surgeons in the United States who specialize in microvascular surgery. Her expertise lies in the extremely small — this type of surgery is performed on the tiniest blood vessels, some smaller than the sharpened point of a pencil.
She primarily performs these procedures at Sharp Memorial Hospital for patients with head and neck cancer. Her job is to rebuild parts of the face, tongue, jaw and throat where tumors have been removed. To do this, she takes tissue from another part of the body — an arm, leg or hip — and carefully connects blood vessels in that tissue to blood vessels in the head or neck.
Surgeons like Dr. Harris must be extraordinarily precise. They perform these procedures with sophisticated robotic tools, using high-powered microscopes and stitches one-third the size of a human hair. They also need incredible stamina; one surgery can last more than 10 hours.
Dr. Harris’ goal is for patients to regain as much of their appearance and functionality as possible.
“It’s a difficult diagnosis,” says Dr. Harris. “Treatment of head and neck cancer can affect the way someone looks, the way they speak, the way they eat. Our whole interaction with the world is through our face. I try to give patients back as much of themselves as I can.”
Dr. Harris is motivated in part by her own experience with cancer. In her first few months of medical school, her father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. At the time of his death, he was only 59 years old. During his illness, Dr. Harris began running races that benefited cancer research. To date, she’s raised more than $100,000 for these causes, often running in honor of patients.
A native of Southern California, Dr. Harris attended medical school at the University of Southern California, followed by a residency at the University of California, Davis, and a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.
She always knew she wanted to return home, so after completing her fellowship, Dr. Harris joined the SENTA Clinic as the San Diego practice’s new director of microvascular surgery. In addition to complicated microvascular procedures, Dr. Harris also treats patients with sinus, thyroid, and other ear, nose and throat conditions.
Caring for patients with head and neck cancer diagnoses can be emotionally tough, so Dr. Harris stays centered by spending time outdoors, exercising and snowboarding. She also receives support — and supports others —through a special WhatsApp messaging group with other female microsurgeons across the country. Through the group, the surgeons forge connections, offer advice and ask questions they may not want to share with their primarily male colleagues.
“This is an incredible field, with incredible doctors,” says Dr. Harris. “And with surgical advances, we’re able to help our patients regain more and more of their lives. It’s important for patients to trust their surgeons. Things really can get better.”