Jean L. Harris remembers the patients who paid her father, a doctor outside Richmond during the Depression, in chickens and vegetables because they could not afford to pay his $2 fee.
She also remembers the problems of her own patients in Washington and the frustrations of finding proper care for her daughter who has multiple handicaps.
Combining her experiences on both sides of the doctor's desk, Harris said she hopes to bring new sensitivity to her position as secretary of human resources in Virginia.
Harris, the first black and first woman state cabinent officer in Virginia, yesterday outlined in an interview some of her goals as she visited Arlington for a reception in her honor.
More than 200 friends and politicians, including Gov. John N. Dalton and Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, gathered at the Sheraton National Hotel for the late afternoon affair.
Harris said she doesn't dwell on the fact that she's a black woman."You stop looking at it," she said. Harris who laughs a lot, said she accepted the appointment for the "challenge and theopportunity.
One of her challenges, she said, will be to make it easier for poor patients to get health care within their local community, rather than having to go through a lot of red tape. She said she believes she has a mandate from the people of Virginia to improve programs for the aged. "We need to help people to accept the fact that they will grow old."
Another of her projects is an effort to institutionalize only mentally ill persons who require hospitalization, Harris said. But "communities are not willing to accept returned (mentally ill) people," she said. She also hopes to improve inoculations and preventive medicine for children.
One question that will come before the General Assembly this session is whether Virginia's Medicaid program should stop paying for elective abortions for poor children, whose pregnanies do not threaten their lives.
"I have personal feelings on the exclusion of a segment of society," from having abortions, Harris said but she added that she would not comment further on the subject until the issue formally goes before the legislature.
Harris was raised in what she called a middle-class family in Richmond and says she was an independent liberated woman before her time.
Now 46, she is a summa cum laude graduate of Virginia Union University and was the first black to receive a doctor of medicine degree from the Medical College of Virginia. While pursuing additional studies in Rochester, N.Y. in the late 1950s, Harris remembered helping her husband, Leslie Ellis, who was a medical researcher. She said because she was married she refused to get help from her parents.
"He used to sell Fuller Brush products all week long." Harris said talking softly and smiling. "We'd stay up all night Fridays bagging those $2 orders. Saturdays we'd deliver them and sometimes we wouldn't get paid."
"I know what it is to be cold. I know what it is to be hungry." Harris said, in response to a question about her sympathy for the poor. "I have all kinds of recipes for corn meal."