Doctor With a Big Heart
“I was 33 years old when I started medical school,” says George Harrison, MD, AHP’s Medical Director, when asked why he chose psychiatry as a profession. “Part of my story is the experience of struggling as a queer teenager. I did not even realize how marginalized I was, but I spent a lot of time lost and fishing around trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
His quests to find a career lead him to get a certificate from a junior college as a respiratory therapist. It wasn’t until he saw a melodramatic movie from 1961 that he found his calling. “I watched some movie called The Young Doctors and in that moment it occurred to me that I could do that.” He returned to school, took pre-med classes, and applied to medical schools. After being rejected several times, the University of Massachusetts, Worchester finally accepted him in 1987.
As part of his medical training, Harrison had a rotation in a psychiatric hospital. Previously, as a respiratory tech, he had rarely had a chance to speak with his patients, as they were often intubated, and unable to speak. Working in the psych unit gave him a chance to connect with patients and he enjoyed connecting.
In 1994, Harrison joined AHP as a staff psychiatrist doing home visits to clients in the Tenderloin and Civic Center at the height of the epidemic. His 10 UN Plaza office was as unglamorous as the homes of his patients, something that initially took him by surprise. Harrison’s expectations of San Francisco’s famously well-designed homes were leveled by the reality of his patients’ lives. But even the squalor of their single-room occupancy hotel rooms did not come close to the profound impact of death after death on Harrison’s psyche.
That story changed in 1996. Successful combination HIV treatment ensured that many Harrison’s clients lived, but at the same time, revealed the multiple stressors —substance abuse, mental health issues, homophobia, and trauma—they lived under. When someone has two months to live, kicking a crack habit or dealing with trans-related violence cannot compete with a host of end-of-life psychological issues. In time, the medical-psychiatric complications of HIV, itself, became just one more complication his patients cope with.
And although his clients must still deal with the challenges of HIV medication side effects and regimen adherence, Harrison believes that for many, homophobia and trauma are the key contributors to their life challenges. “Trauma sets up an expectation of what life is going to be like and presents people with a lot of difficulties in finding success in life,” he says. “It limits opportunities to be compassionate, nurturing, and regenerative, all the bread-and-butter experiences that keep people packed together and engaged with others.”
Harrison takes solace in helping his clients have a better day, or week. Early in his career, he unlearned the naive expectation of a young psychiatrist that he could alleviate mental health disorders. Now he is more utilitarian, satisfied to help people achieve healthy responses to day-to-day challenges, interjecting as much comfort as possible along the way. He also gains a lot of gratification from his role as medical director supervising other clinicians in their work with clients.
AHP’s expansion into LGBTQ mental health makes sense to Harrison. Since most of his clients with HIV, whether or not they were LGBTQ, have suffered from similar stories of marginalization, trauma, mental health crisis, and substance use. “The stain of homophobia is one of the predictors of trauma, and the stories of LGBTQ folks are very similar to those with HIV.”
Harrison brings humility and practicality to his work and his life. Every person who works with or comes into contact with him feels the warmth, kindness, and care and he offers. Harrison said he knows that admissions to medical schools are very precious and feels he has put his education to good use, contributing to both UCSF’s educational goals and AHP’s community service mission. AHP clients, staff and leadership wholeheartedly agree.