Book on 'Life at a Snail's Pace' to be published in the fall

Claire Dietz

The following article appeared in the June 22, 1995 issue of University Week. Reprinted with permission.

Eight years ago Dr. Roger Harris, associate professor of biological structure, suffered a massive stroke that nearly ended his life. His prognosis was so poor that a "do not resuscitate" order was written.

Yet he gained consciousness and began to recover. After the initial time in intensive care, his condition stabilized. And then he was moved to the UW Medical Center's Rehabilitation Medicine floor to begin learning how to manage with the limited function left him. He spent nine weeks there as an inpatient and several more months as an outpatient, receiving therapy in the mornings and trying to sort out his former life as a researcher and teacher in the afternoons.

And all along the way, he was going to kidney dialysis sessions, or "runs," as they are called, three times a week for several hours. Two weeks after the stroke, his kidneys failed, so that he will need dialysis for the rest of his life.

About a year and a half after the stroke, Harris began to write about his experience. At first, he wrote to communicate his progress and his thoughts to a personal friend. He set aside time for this project by deciding it could be done during his dialysis runs. "A chapter a run" became his guideline. Later, he said, after the basic manuscript was already written, he began to see this communication as a book.

And finally, five years later, he found a publisher who agreed with him. This fall, Seattle's Peanut Butter Publishing will bring out Life at a Snail's Pace, the book that Harris describes as both an account of his recovery and, perhaps more importantly, his thoughts about life that led him to what he calls "a new world view" as he recovered.

"I really began to write because there was this time when I started to feel that life was really great, in spite of everything I wouldn't be able to do again," he said. And I began to appreciate a lot of things from my new perspective in a new way." The book's title reflects that perspective. Unlike may published volumes, it is the first and last title the manuscript has ever had.

The "snail's pace" he refers to is familiar to many, if not most, of those who work in the UW's Health Sciences Center. As Harris slowly makes his way down the halls, walking with a four-pronged cane, other people slow down to chat or confer. He practices remembering people's names. He pauses to greet people in offices he goes by every day.

Eager to become as independent as possible, he began taking the bus home to and from work about a year after the stroke, so his walking route also leads up to the bus stop on Stevens Way.

Harris credits his wife Allie, "the most wonderful wife in the world," and his 15- and 18-year-old daughters with providing critical support as he struggled to recover and come to terms with his disabilities. He was also supported by the Department of Biological Structure, where he carries a heavy teaching load and has been pursuing research on a model of spinal cord injury recovery in rats.

His original training was in physics, and after earning a Ph.D. in that field from the UW, he worked from 1974 to 1977 at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. But he decided his real interest was in neurobiology, and spent a summer at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts as a sort of "crash course" in his newly chosen field. He became a research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, and then went on to be a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, Department of Anatomy.

When a faculty position at the UW in the Department of Biological Structure was advertised, he took the plunge and applied, in part because he had always hoped to be able to return to Seattle. With his strong computing skills, he was hired as an assistant professor and began working on the early stages of the complex project to develop computer programs to teach anatomy, now call the "Digital Anatomist."

After the stroke, as he sorted out what he was able to manage, he decided to focus on teaching and on the spinal cord research, which is now on the back burner for lack of funding. In the meantime, the disabilities he struggled with in the wake of the stroke led to a whole new set of contributions. He was named a member of the University Standing Committee on Accessibility and joined advice and evaluation committees for the physical and occupational therapy programs in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Through the "DO-IT" Program, he began working with high school students with disabilities who are interested in science and engineering and he's now a mentor.

The last two summers he has been a part of the "Making Connections" summer institute at the UW for middle school science teachers. "Working with the teachers is great," he says.

In fact, Harris is fundamentally a teacher--"That's really why I'm here," he says--and his slow and difficult journey back from his stroke has served to provide him with a whole new set of lesson plans for all of us.