A mission of service
Dr. Harold Latta has built a career caring for children
By Doug Boyd
Dr. Harold Latta's compassion for his patients reveals itself in one particular story.
During one of his many mission trips to Haiti, Latta saw a 6-year-old girl named Marie Yves whose case of strep throat went untreated, led to rheumatic fever and damaged the mitral valve in her heart.
Latta, who practices pediatrics in Winston-Salem, arranged for Marie Yves to fly to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, where a pediatric heart surgeon inserted an artificial valve, helping Marie Yves to be able to lead a normal, active life.
"She was a well child for seven years," he said. After a brief pause, he continued. "She passed away in the earthquake."
The quietly emotional moment said a lot about the character of Latta, a 1987 medical graduate of ECU.
"Harold is not talkative – some might even say shy – but his life, and the ministry of his medical practice, speaks eloquently to why the practice of medicine matters so very much," said Dr. Dudley Bell, who practices with Latta. "He demonstrates every day the highest professionalism, modeling for all of us how to follow the calling of being a physician."
Latta has practiced in Winston-Salem for 20 years, since completing his residency at Wake Forest University. His professional life has centered on healing sick and injured children, while outside of work he has been a leader in his church, active in community charities and a dedicated medical missionary.
"He is quite remarkable and just inspiring," said nurse Susan Cook. "The patients he treats are also inspiring to him and make him laugh."
Many of those patients come from towns outside Winston-Salem, particularly ones with special needs. Latta has built a subspecialty around such children.
"With all of Dr. Latta's patients, these families keep coming back because they trust him," Cook said. "He believes in providing the best quality of care rather than the quantity of care. In pediatrics you have to build a rapport with the patient and family because it's important for these families to trust you. This is truly how Dr. Latta works every day."
Commitment to family and patients
Family is a cornerstone of Latta's life. He and his wife met in the early 1980s, while they were students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We had sworn off that we would never go on another blind date, but our friends talked us into it," Latta said. Two years later, they were married and living in Greenville while Latta attended medical school.
Dr. Tom Irons, an ECU professor of pediatrics, not only taught Latta in medical school but also taught the couple in Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church. He said the Lattas were inquisitive, raised pointed questions and had a way of applying spiritual lessons to contemporary times.
"They're very, very service-oriented in their lives," Irons said. "And they have a warmth about them you feel. I always knew they would do something like this."
Latta and nurse Susan Cook take care of a child.
The Lattas then went to Winston-Salem, where he completed residency training in pediatrics. That's where they've been ever since. Lydia Latta is a grade-school teacher in Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools.
In the office, Latta earns praise from colleagues for his demeanor and for his knack for finding innovative answers to patient care matters.
"Harold is the epitome of a great pediatrician," Bell said. "He is highly intelligent and thoughtful, very gentle with kids and parents and practices medicine and, in fact, lives all of his life, with the highest integrity. My own practice of medicine is made easier by Harold's presence in the office. He is the ‘go-to guy' for puzzling, difficult or obscure cases.
"He makes sure his patients are taken care of as well as is humanly possible, no matter the time or effort involved," Bell said. "'Dedication' is the word to use."
That's also a word to use for Latta's pursuit of mission work. He's inspired others, including Bell, to get involved in mission organizations in Haiti as well as locally.
In addition to his regular practice, Latta also sees patients at the Sunnyside clinic, operated by the Moravian Sunnyside Ministry and the Forsyth County Department of Public Health. The free clinic operates two days a month and provides routine care, lab work and school physicals. Some of the patients he's seen there have become regular patients at his practice.
He carries that demeanor to the medical students who pass through his practice. "Harold has a great love of teaching, and enjoys the obligation we all have to pass on medical knowledge to those following us," Bell said. "He models excellent, compassionate care in a non-threatening, helpful, positive fashion."
Mission work calls
Winston-Salem may be where he focuses his practice, but his mind is never far from Haiti and the patients, like Marie Yves, he's treated there. In 1996, a colleague convinced him to give overseas work a try. So Latta planned to take off two weeks during the summer and contacted a mission group for an assignment. For various reasons, communication didn't go smoothly, and Latta began to wonder if the trip would happen.
But one day he received a phone call from a pharmacist who was working at a hospital in Haiti. It turned out the pharmacist's wife had been in the office of the mission organization Latta was working with and overheard his name during a phone call. She looked him up and forwarded his name and number to her husband.
"I kind of felt like it was meant to be, because if she hadn't been there, it wouldn't have fallen into place," Latta said.
Latta examines a child during a trip to Haiti.
Soon, he arrived at the hospital in Leogane, Haiti. He described it as dark and dreary, but it provided life-saving care. Latta was changed forever. People suffered with illnesses and injuries that would be easily and quickly treated in a clean, modern U.S. hospital or doctor's office – or, they would have been prevented through vaccines and public health measures such as clean water.
"And I felt tremendous guilt for weeks after I came back," he said, until his wife told him he should plan to return.
To Latta, taking care of children in Third World countries is vital. He cites statistics detailing the inequity in health care spending and public health measures between rich and poor countries and their effects on the health of children in poor countries. For example, he said, about 8 percent of children live in developed countries, but they receive 90 percent of children's health spending.
"When you see that great difference, certainly we want to do everything we can do to" to help, he said.
Latta has long-term goals for his work in Haiti, too.
"He feels a strong desire to raise a generation of healthy Haitian children," Cook said, "so our Haitian brothers and sisters can help themselves solve the problems of health, economics, infrastructure and literacy."
Sources of inspiration
Latta has been back to Haiti numerous times, often taking colleagues and his family with him. His oldest daughter, Courtney, 23, was working with a children's hunger project in Haiti Jan. 12 when the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck.
"My wife and I had a very long hour," he said, recalling when news of the earthquake arrived. "We were very fortunate one of her friends was able to get a cell phone call out before all the cell systems died."
Courtney Latta was OK; in fact, she spent the night helping care for the injured even though she had no medical training. Her father immediately began making plans to go there, and he arrived Jan. 18 and was there about nine days. He called it "not only the most overwhelming and depressing but also the most inspiring trip."
After a night of rescue work, he recalled a moment the following morning that seemed to reflect the spirit of his own work there.
"As the sun was coming up," he said. "I awoke to people singing hymns."