Eastern Shore native gets adventurous

By Curt Chapman
Staff Writer
Posted 7/8/07

Cmdr. Kenneth Harman, a physician with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHSCC), and currently assigned as chief of health services with the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station at Cape Cod, Mass., is one of those rare doctors who still …

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Eastern Shore native gets adventurous


Cmdr. Kenneth Harman, a physician with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHSCC), and currently assigned as chief of health services with the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station at Cape Cod, Mass., is one of those rare doctors who still makes house calls.

The Eastern Shore native took care of the sick and injured after the December 2004 Indonesian tsunami, and more recently worked in New Orleans as the medical unit leader for the Coast Guard incident command where his group tended to those injured when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005.

“The U.S. responded (in Indonesia) by sending the (U.S. Navy) hospital ship Mercy,” he said. “Because of my background and experience, I was asked to serve as triage physician onshore.”

Harman evaluated victims of the disaster to determine if they needed a higher level of care than was available there, and stabilized them before sending them to the ship.

One little girl, Elise, had developed tsunami lung, which occurs when people inhale salt water contaminated with mud and bacteria. Left untreated, her lung infection festered, entered the bloodstream, and spread to the brain. It produced abscesses and neurological problems including paralysis.

She was in a coma when she arrived on board the Mercy and had to be placed on a ventilator. She recovered, and when she was well enough, she was returned to her community. The last time Harman saw her, she was back with her family and the weakness on her right side had improved to the point that she could walk.

“For every patient I was able to take to the ship, there were at least 100 more that needed to go,” he added. “It was hard.”

Harman spent a month telling people there why they could not be accommodated. He said, “It was already a third-world country in health care, and the tsunami devastated the medical infrastructure.”

The aftermath of Katrina was fortunately a disaster of smaller proportion compared to the tsunami, Harman said, but was no less heartbreaking.

He noted earthquakes are a common occurrence to Indonesians, but such a tsunami had not impacted their shore in over 100 years so they were not prepared for what was to happen.

Harman said that in New Orleans, “everyone responded in preparation for a hurricane. Had the flood not occurred, Katrina would have been just a blustery day in the Big Easy. When the levee broke, it changed the scope.”

He said if there was anything to be learned from Katrina, it would be that “preparation at the personal level is critical. The expectation that people can remain in their home complacent and unprepared and expect someone to respond and meet their needs is unrealistic. Have a plan and 48-72 hours of supplies. Be prepared personally and if the wise decision is get in your car and leave, do that sooner rather than later.”

The former Spanish Fort resident attended elementary and junior high school in Daphne before graduating from Fairhope High in 1970. He received a degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Alabama, and decided during his junior year of college that he wanted to be a doctor.

He earned a health profession scholarship and was accepted into medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Just a few years ago, Harman had a thriving private family practice in Pelham, Ala., but left it behind in 2002 to seek out new adventure. A friend serving with USPHSCC told him the Coast Guard needed a flight surgeon in Kodiak, Alaska, and asked him if he might be interested.

Naturally, he had to discuss it with his wife, Tammy. The couple will celebrate their 15th anniversary in October.

“The children were grown, and our parents were in good health,” Harman said. “Both of us were feeling a little bit interested in exploring opportunities.” After finding a good physician to replace him at Oak Mountain Family Practice, he left to begin what he calls his “mid-life adventure.”

Harman had to pass a Class II aviation physical as well as a swim test so that he could fly with the Coast Guard during medical evacuation missions. He also trained in flight surgery with the Army at Fort Rucker, Ala., and completed “dunker training” with the Navy in Pensacola.

Working with the Coast Guard turned out to be a natural fit for Harman, who had also served nearly nine years in the Navy. He said, “I had always enjoyed my affiliation with the military. This was an opportunity to provide service to my country.”

The USPHSCC provides highly trained and mobile health professionals who carry out programs to promote the health of the nation, understand and prevent disease and injury, assure safe and effective drugs and medical devices, deliver health services to federal beneficiaries and furnish health expertise in time of war or other national or international emergencies.

As one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, the Corps is a specialized career system designed to attract, develop, and retain health professionals who may be assigned to federal, state or local agencies or international organizations.

More help is needed. Harman said, “With 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Public Health Service is really stepping up to the plate and preparing for action. We have 4,500 officers now, but need 6,000. It’s transforming into a very modern, professional and responsive organization.”

He added, “I left private practice to start in this with a little trepidation, if I would meet the challenge and find professional fulfillment. I like the people I work with, and like the mission. It’s a perfect fit for me.”

Harman was on the road with Tammy on Friday, heading to Baldwin County where they planned to visit family members still living here. His mother, Ruth Bishop, lives in Orange Beach, and his sister, Wendy, and her husband, Todd Everett, live in Daphne.

For more information about the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to find out how to take part in its mission, visit www.usphs.gov.