lifelong learner Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Charles Harr (MD '83, MBA '14)

By Elizabeth Dam-Regier

This lifelong learner is always looking for what's next

Chuck Harr (MD ‘83, MBA ‘14) has always had a goal to work toward in his life and career. First, it was college, then onto medical school, and next the reserves. One day he looked up and he was 18th Medical Officer of the Marine Corps on the staff of General James F. Amos and Vice Admiral Matthew L. Nathan. Harr began to wonder… what’s next?

Harr, a thoracic surgeon and currently Chief Medical Officer at WakeMed Health and Hospitals, thought about the next step in his already impressive career. “I learned that I wasn’t smart enough to do all the things I wanted to do,” Harr explains. An MBA education would help give him the skills needed to design the delivery of care to a population of people rather than one person at a time.

Dr. Charles Harr (MD '83, MBA '14)

Just a young man from Bristol, Tennessee

“When I started out, I was just a young man from Tennessee who wasn’t even sure if he’d go to college,” Harr says. It wasn’t until a family friend got him a job at a nearby hospital – simply because he needed to buy a car – that he realized he wanted to become a physician.

Being at Wake Forest helped me understand the art of medicine – how to be a healing physician, not just a doctor.

Harr spent his undergraduate years at East Tennessee State University, then came to Winston-Salem to complete his medical training at Wake Forest. “It was the best decision I have ever made,” explains Harr. “People who are physicians have an inner drive – we get the mechanics of being a physician. But being at Wake Forest helped me understand the art of medicine – how to be a healing physician, not just a doctor.”

Looking for more and giving back

In 1989, between his general and cardiothoracic surgery training years, Harr felt the ping of “what’s next?” creeping up again. Realizing that he was fortunate to have received a scholarship which paid for all of his medical school tuition, he decided he wanted to give back and joined the US Navy Reserves.

Harr admits, not being from a military family, he never even thought of having a military career. But he began as a physician, went into administrative medicine, and by the time he retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 he was ranked Rear Admiral. Heading back into civilian life and with experience in administrative medicine, Harr decided he needed the tools of an MBA to truly be effective and competitive in his field.

Facing a learning curve

While still practicing medicine, Harr enrolled in the Charlotte Evening MBA program. “I was 57-years-old when I went back to school. It was scary to think, what if I fail?”

I'm a heart surgeon, I was an admiral. I was used to running things. Going back taught me humility in a way you can't get until you're tested.

Harr quickly realized how sharp the learning curve would be. Watching classmates navigate Excel felt like watching himself in the operating room. A physician with no business background, he was less prepared for his MBA than any of his classmates. He had to rethink his leadership style, “I’m a heart surgeon, I was an admiral. I was used to running things. Going back taught me humility in a way you can’t get until you’re tested.”

“There are a lot of people who are every bit as good as I am. I am not unique,” says Harr. And he credits his six-person MBA cohort for getting him through the program. “I was fortunate to have them and a lot of support. I worked really hard, but they worked harder to make sure I would succeed.”

This refreshed understanding of teamwork easily translated into the field of medicine. “None of us individually can bring about healing – we need to work in an intercollegial and interdisciplinary method with our nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists to ensure everyone gets the best care.”

Working in the wake of COVID

Harr is now using those practical business skills to provide care as he faces a myriad of challenges during a global pandemic. While walking through the COVID-19 unit recently Harr saw a familiar scene. “Everybody was functioning in the same manner as a war time medical unit. Nobody was excitable, they were focused on the mission, they had their protective equipment, they worked together in a unified manner so they were watching each other’s back. It felt very much like being in a battlefield situation.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States, the situation can sometimes feel bleak for our health care workers. “The closest thing I’ve experienced to the current situation is the HIV epidemic,” Harr explains. “The thing you learn is one: be cautious. And two: communicate. With HIV and coronavirus, there were a lot of things that we didn’t know. We need to communicate because people are afraid.”

Our much bigger risk is losing our resiliency and our will to treat patients because of that concern.

Aside from the obvious risks of being a physician during a pandemic, Harr explains there are other risks to consider: “Our much bigger risk is losing our resiliency and our will to treat patients because of that concern.”

A love for lifelong learning

So, what is the next stop on Harr’s eclectic journey? “Well, I’d like to have a dog. My wife won’t let me have a dog until I’m home enough to take care of it.” In all seriousness, Harr anticipates slowly transitioning out of the operating room and giving back in other ways. “There’s always meaningful work to be done,” Harr says.

There's always meaningful work to be done.

As the past President of the Wake Forest Medical Alumni Association, Harr works closely with Dr. Julie A. Freischlag, Chief Executive Officer of Wake Forest Baptist Health and Dean of the School of Medicine. Together, along with others in the alumni association, they work to ensure Wake Forest is a place of lifelong learning for both alumni and staff. “I have a lot of love for Wake Forest – it gave me an opportunity with a scholarship, it taught me professionalism, and it’s been a good supporter of me since.”

Harr truly believes that once you go to Wake Forest, you’re always a Wake Forester – and he’s dedicated to lifelong learning at Wake Forest. “If I had my dream job, I would be back at Wake Forest coordinating education between the Business and Medical Schools, continuing to cultivate young learners and help them see opportunity in times of adversity.” Well, Chuck, we would like that.

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