LaTonya and LaToya Harris are ready to ‘combine our love of food, chiropractic, exercise and business’ while educating on the importance of diversity in the industry
In 2010 they graduated as the top two students in their high school class, and 10 years later they walked the stage at Parker University, completing degrees for doctors of chiropractic as the top two students in their graduating class. Now they’re ready to change an industry and show the importance of diversity in an industry where few Blacks or patients of color overall are served by the estimated 2-3% of Black chiropractors in the U.S.
Along the way twin sisters LaTonya and LaToya Harris earned their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sports management from The University of Texas at Austin and concluded a second set of master’s degrees in functional nutrition and their doctorate degrees in chiropractic medicine at Parker.
“I believe that sports management, nutrition and chiropractic all go hand-in-hand,” LaToya said. “Our sports management degrees allowed us to tap into our entrepreneurial spirits a bit more and provided us with a business foundation that is lacking in most chiropractic curricula. Knowing how to properly fuel your body is key to living a healthy life. In my opinion, nutrition directly influences how effective any treatment can be.”
A chiropractic run-in
The pair’s first exposure to chiropractic was less than memorable.
During their first weekend with a driver’s license, the 16 year-olds were at a complete stop when they were rear-ended by another car. Unfamiliar with chiropractic, they were referred by their family doctor to a DC who failed to put them at ease, and who failed to alleviate their back spasms and other painful injuries.
“I was afraid of the adjustments, and post-treatment I still experienced pain and back spasms that I felt were going to affect me for the rest of my life,” LaTonya said. “Sadly, I did not enjoy my first chiropractic experience.”
LaToya added, “I did not enjoy my experience. I never felt like I was getting better.”
Their experience with chiropractic wouldn’t change for the better until approximately six years later when, during their undergraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, they interned at a large sports training facility that featured certified experts in applied functional science, including a chiropractor.
“There we met our current mentor, Dr. Jordan Pellien, who completely changed my mind about chiropractors and helped me to understand the many benefits of chiropractic care,” LaToya said. “With his help, I became more functional and was able to rehab old injuries that were still affecting my life.”
Both sisters played intramural softball at UT-Austin, and under expert chiropractic care were thrilled to be able to address the remnants of injuries from their car accident and other aches and pains.
“He completely changed my life,” LaTonya said. “Within just a few sessions I was more functional, pain-free, and most importantly he educated me about the profession and why chiropractic was important for my health.”
It was these chiropractic sessions, applied functional science and the drug-free healing they saw and experienced that led the Harris sisters to think, “Should we become chiropractors?”
“I thought about becoming a chiropractor one time during my undergraduate experience and presented the idea to Toya,” LaTonya said. “We both laughed and immediately dismissed it by saying we probably weren’t smart enough or good enough at science to pull it off. It was in a much similar fashion to how we used to laugh at our grandmother when she’d tell us we’d be doctors one day. One year after graduating with our master’s degree from UT, the idea of becoming a chiropractor resurfaced and this time it was Toya’s idea.”
LaToya, the older of the two by four minutes who refers to her sister as “the smart twin,” had initially dismissed the idea, but came around after realizing she enjoyed working as part of a team.
“I felt we were more business-oriented,” LaToya said. “Our parents have been in management and owned different businesses for as long as we can remember, so we found business natural. But when we left the gym and started working for YETI, we realized we were happiest being part of a team that helped people get better in a natural way.”
The two attended an information session at Parker University, and shortly after “took a huge leap of faith” and enrolled — and never regretted the decision.
“We don’t believe it was any coincidence that the street we took to work every day the year prior to our enrollment was named Parker Road,” LaTonya said. “God has a way of showing you things even when you aren’t paying attention to all of the signs.”
A COVID ending to college
Due to COVID-19, the sisters’ senior year, which culminated when they walked the graduation stage in December of last year, was “quite a ride.”
They missed 13 weeks of clinical experience due to the pandemic and the ability to continue to develop their skills seeing patients.
“We feared being able to graduate on time and were constantly wondering about how we could continue to improve our clinical skills without being able to see patients,” LaTonya said in December. “We just finished our last clinical rotation at the Austin VA and it was such a rewarding experience.”
Part of the reward, reinforced LaToya, was the schooling paired with the real-world experience.
“I’m very thankful that we were able to obtain all of our graduation credits despite the pandemic,” she said. “I think schools do their best to prepare you, but I am not sure anything can truly replace clinical experience. The truth is we will never stop learning. I do not want to be the same clinician I am today, five or 10 years from now. I always want to continue to evolve and grow so that I can be the best for my patients.”
The ‘real world’ and making a real difference
The twins plan to establish a practice together, combining chiropractic, sports medicine and functional nutrition, as well as a mentorship program and scholarship fund for minority doctors.
“Tonya and I would like to combine our love of food, chiropractic, exercise and business to establish more of a non-traditional integrative health care facility that allows patients to be treated with a more holistic approach,” LaToya says. “We understand that this will take time to build, but we are patient.”
Their management and business background, LaTonya says, has instilled the confidence to launch and run their own business, ideally “an integrative wellness center with a holistic and alternative approach to health care.”
“I do feel the combination of sports management, functional nutrition and chiropractic is very powerful,” she says. “Toya and I feel that our nutritional background has aided in providing us an even better understanding of the power food has in helping our bodies heal. As chiropractors, I think it is important to understand not only how our bodies work from a mechanical standpoint, [but also] how the body responds to the environment, food and movement. When these elements are well balanced, they create a great foundation for our bodies to perform and recover optimally.”
Serving minority populations and the importance of diversity
In an industry where less than 3% of chiropractors are Black, yet more than 13% of the U.S. population is Black, there is a need for not only greater chiropractic and wellness services to Black populations, but a great need for education and to show the importance of diversity in care and service.
“Many minorities we talk to have no clue what chiropractors do,” LaToya says. “It’s a constant education process for us. It reminds me of the statement, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’ I think increasing the exposure to chiropractic care in minority communities could result in an increase in minority patients. Tonya and I both understand the value of representation, and what it means to see someone that looks like you accomplish things you wish to accomplish in life. It is very important that my sister and I work to change this aspect of health care.”
In regard to providing scholarship opportunities once they are established, or even before, the Harris twins realize and have experienced the barriers to success for Blacks and minorities in chiropractic education. After the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the difficulties have only compounded in minority communities.
“Since many minorities are from a lower-SES [socioeconomic status] background, we know financial strain is a huge aspect of why some do not seek higher education or alternative forms of treatment,” LaToya says. “There is also an overwhelming psychological component to being in a classroom with people who do not look like you or understand your culture. We want to help alleviate this in any way we can. We are always open to talking with current and prospective students about our experiences and how we have gotten to where we are now.”
RICK VACH is editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics.