Deanna Harris | UPMC Life Changers

Deanna Harris, MSW, LSW, never imagined herself working in a hospital. When she received her master’s degree in social work, she hoped to work in a school.

“I’ve always had a fear of hospitals since I was a young girl,” she says. “I never wanted to work in a hospital.”

Yet, her career eventually took her to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh — where she found a home. In 2020, she became a social worker in the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

Harris fills a critical role at UPMC Children’s, providing support to families of children who have cancer. The work allows her to follow her passion for helping children.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself when I see how well I do here,” she says. “Because working here has been probably the best social work job I’ve had since I started my social work career. I feel honored every day to do what I do.”

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‘This Is Like My Divine Calling’

Helping others is part of Harris’ nature. Growing up in Boston, she would make sandwiches for hungry children in her neighborhood.

“I just always wanted to give back or do something to help,” she says.

Her path to becoming a social worker began in eighth grade. Her aunt, who was one of her role models, worked as the regional director for the Department of Children, Youth, and Families in Boston. When Harris was in eighth grade, she accompanied her aunt to her job for Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

That one day of shadowing her aunt at work inspired Harris to want to become a social worker herself.

“At the end of that day, I said to her, ‘I want to be you when I grow up,'” she says. “And it stuck. I always say this is like my divine calling. I felt this since I was in eighth grade.”

One of Harris’ first jobs was as a case worker at the Office of Children, Youth, and Families in western Pennsylvania. She suffered a devastating loss upon learning about the murder of one of her clients.

“My boss at the time told me, ‘You’re either going to take this hard loss and let it break you or make you.’ And it made me,” Harris says. “Every time I do stuff now, I think of [that client]. It became my driving force.”

Harris was working at another social work job in early 2020 when an acquaintance asked her if she’d ever considered medical social work. Although she still had her fear of hospitals, she decided to apply for the position at Children’s.

“I remember being nervous in my interview, saying I don’t really have much medical background,” she says. “It was a fear of mine: How am I really going to fit in here? Because I don’t really know a lot of medical terminology.

“My manager, Kimberly Washington, said, ‘Be a social worker first and the medicine will follow.’ And she was right.”

‘Like a Guardian Angel’

Harris’ main responsibility is helping the families of children who have cancer.

That work can take many different forms. She often meets with parents whose children were recently diagnosed, providing emotional support as a shoulder to cry on.

“Deanna walked in the very first day,” says Megan Simpson, whose son was diagnosed at 8 days old with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer. “She sat right with me on the bed and jumped in and gave me a big hug. She was like, ‘Everything’s going to be all right. This baby’s going to be OK.’ I bawled.

“She was right there with us every step of the way. She honestly was like a best friend, like a guardian angel.”

Harris provides an important communication link between families and the medical care team. She attends care conferences with doctors and advocates for the families’ needs.

“I often say I’m a bridge between medical and families,” she says. “I help bridge that communication gap. Some people who come into the hospital don’t trust systems. I feel like I’m in that gap for them to kind of bridge both together so we can be like one united front and just make sure that we’re doing what’s best for the patient.”

In addition, Harris helps connect families to other resources. That could include financial support or community organizations that can help fill the families’ needs.

“What makes Deanna quite unique is her ability to level with families,” says Maura Miglioretti, PhD, psychologist, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, UPMC Children’s. “She definitely relates to pretty much any family we have in a unique way.

“She makes them feel very special. And she forms a very close relationship with them that allows them to trust her in a way that they don’t trust other people. Deanna’s definitely a one-of-a-kind social worker.”

Harris often goes above and beyond to help families. For one family who came to UPMC Children’s from Africa, Harris went grocery shopping and brought them food that made them feel more comfortable. During the holiday season, she and Dr. Miglioretti went shopping for gifts for a family that didn’t have any.

“It’s how I’d want my family to be treated if we were here at Children’s,” she says. “And so, going above and beyond is the norm.”

‘I Think About the Kids. That’s Why I Do This.’

Working with families of children who have cancer can take its toll. Harris often has to support parents in their most difficult moments, at the bedside of children who don’t always survive.

“Usually, moms want me there because we build that long-term bond,” she says. “At the end, they want me to be there as well because I was there in the beginning. So, I honor those friendships and relationships with my parents so that at the end, they feel like they have someone on their side.”

But the job has joyous moments, too. She attends the bell-ringing ceremonies of children who are officially cancer-free. She says she’s often one of the loudest people at those events.

“I’m cheering, I’m crying with moms, we’re crying together,” she says. “They’re thanking me for being part of their family. Because I really do become part of their families. They really open up to me about the most personal things that they haven’t even told their family members.

“I’m honored that they entrust me with such personal things and that they let me work with them and then work with their children and just get them to the end of this hard, hard tunnel.”

A good day for Harris is learning that a child is cancer-free or throwing a celebration at the end of a child’s bone marrow transplant treatment.

“I love those days — the days that we’re celebrating,” she says. “Those are my days. I take those days, and I hold them in my heart for those bad days. Because those bad days can make you go, ‘How can I come in here tomorrow?’

“But then I think about the kids. That’s why I do this.”

‘It Is My Life’

Harris often stays beyond the scheduled end of her shift at 4:30 p.m.

“I can’t end my day until I make sure everybody I see gets what they need,” she says.

After boarding the employee shuttle at the end of a shift in late 2022, Harris noticed a distressed woman. Harris got off the shuttle and approached the woman to see if she could help. She learned the woman’s son had been rushed to the emergency department.

Harris accompanied the woman to the emergency department and spent the next hour with her, providing support.

She won a “Kids First” award at UPMC Children’s for setting an example of helping families. But in Harris’ mind, it was just part of her job.

“One thing about me: Even though I left and I was done, I’m still a social worker,” she says. “That’s just how I am. It doesn’t go away. It is my life.”

For Harris, that passion for helping others outweighs her old fear of hospitals.

“For me, being with my parents and helping my families, all that fear goes away instantly,” she says. “All I can think about is: How can I make this family’s day better?”

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.