Season 4 - Episode 428
Dr. Gary Sheppard is Baylor’s 2021 Alumnus of the Year. An internal medicine physician in private practice in Houston, he provides professional leadership in a number of roles, including as president of the Harris County Medical Society. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Sheppard shares insights on the practice of medicine and service and examines philosophies and values that carried him and his patients through the challenges of COVID-19.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. Today, we are visiting with Dr. Gary Sheppard from Houston. Dr. Sheppard serves as an internal medicine physician in private practice at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, and this spring, he was named as Baylor's 2021 Alumnus of The Year. In 1987, Baylor graduate, Dr. Sheppard has built a decorated record of service in the medical field and in the community. He serves as president of the Harris County Medical Society, and has participated in numerous professional medical organizations. Throughout his career, Dr. Sheppard has served as an advocate for the health care needs of the underserved, and he is a member of Houston's historic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Lot on his plate these days, and Dr. Sheppard, we really appreciate you taking the time to join us. Thanks so much for coming on Baylor Connections today.
Gary Sheppard:Thank you. Glad to be here.
Derek Smith:It's great to have you here and learn more about your story and what went into you becoming Baylor's 2021 Alumnus of The Year. We're talking here as we're getting started, but in addition to your role as a physician, you provide leadership in your field, and mentorship to young men at your church, you play music, you travel, how do you fit that all in, in a typical day or a typical week?
Gary Sheppard:I wonder myself sometimes. I think the no sleep. I have a real sense of needing to organize and make sure I know what all my day is going to entail most of the time. And as long as I can juggle it and I know what's coming up, then I juggle things. So, it allows me to do a number of different things. Now, if things run over, that can really throw things off. But for the most part, as long as I know what I'm getting into and I can plan out my week, I know what I can do, what I can't do. And my calendar and I are very good friends.
Derek Smith:That's good. Well, Dr. Sheppard, we talk about your role as an internal medicine physician. What does your role entail?
Gary Sheppard:An internal medicine physician is a general internist, which, that's what I am. We're trained as diagnosticians. We're able to look at adults. We only take care of adults, and figure out what may be going on within. They call us the investigators. We also usually function as primary care doctors. We take care of your high blood pressure, your diabetes, your thyroid disease. If you have a cold, if you have allergies, all those general things, we take care of all of those. So if it's an adult, we take care of it for you.
Derek Smith:You mentioned high blood pressure and diabetes. Those are two real areas of focus for you. How did you come into and particularly specialize and hone in on these areas?
Gary Sheppard:Well, for diabetes, my grandmother was a diabetic and also two of my aunts were diabetics when I was growing up. So it was always interesting. And I could see the difference in how well they took care of themselves. My grandmother was very meticulous of making sure she was eating the right thing. Every now and then she'd get desserts, but for the most part, she would watch what she was eating. She makes sure she's checking her sugar. She'd go to her doctor's appointment. One of my aunts did the same thing. The other aunt didn't do as well. And the one that didn't follow the rules, basically, she had more complications than others. It's like, okay, if you do what you're supposed to do, then you're going to be better. That was one of the things with my interest in diabetes. And like I said... That's my dad's side of the family. And like I said, we have diabetes throughout our family, so that was one of the interests in that. When it came to high blood pressure, knowing that it's what we call a silent killer and it's very prominent in the African-American community. And it's another interest of mine. And you usually see these two in conjunction. A lot of times, if a person has diabetes, they're going to also have high blood pressure. Not everybody, but the majority of times. So, I usually see those in conjunction anyway. Working on those two things would significantly improve the overall health for a lot of Americans.
Derek Smith:What does it mean to you to get to be that person, you build relationships with your patients and as they deal with things that you just described, being able to help them navigate that in a healthy way, hopefully, like you mentioned, your grandmother or your aunt who did that especially well?
Gary Sheppard:I think that's what allows me to get up every morning and be excited about coming to work, because I do get that opportunity to help people and help their lives be better. Sometimes I have to cajole them into saying, you've really got to do better because we've got to make sure you are able to walk your daughter down the aisle. We've got to make sure you're seeing your first grandchild. We want you to see your grandchild's graduation. That's what I'm trying to do, is make sure that these people are around to see all those important parts of their family's lives and not be missing and just remembered. We want them to be there and be active in those things. So, that's why my focus is can I prevent these things from killing you early.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Gary Sheppard, Baylor's 2021 Alumnus of The Year. Dr. Sheppard, really broad question for you. Thinking back to March of last year, how has the last year impacted you and your patients? I know there's probably a million directions you could go with that question.
Gary Sheppard:It's been, for lack of a better word, interesting. It's been a change on all fronts, actually. Whether it's been my practice, and because I'm in private practice, it's been a struggle at times to make sure we still can pay for all the expenses that come in, whether it's rent, and everything that we need to operate. Also to make sure our staff is paid, gets their checks, and they're able to continue with their health insurance, all the things that we pay for, because our patient numbers went down. As internal medicine physicians, the number of patients we see really directs how well we get reimbursed. Because the numbers went down, that was a big concern in how we make sure that we're actually able to provide for not only all of our patients. So, we've got to be here, but we've also got to make sure the staff is safe. We've got to make sure that they are also able to take care of their families. That was our concern. Like I said, I have a partner, so that was what our concern was, is how can we make sure that our staff is being taken care of, and also that we are around and still here? Unfortunately, some physicians practices have closed or they have decided to do something else, because they couldn't weather this storm over the past year. It's been very difficult on a lot of private practice physicians, but for as far as my patients it's just making sure that they know the correct information. There's a lot of information out there. Most of it isn't correct. Making sure that they understand what's going on, that they are prepared to protect themselves and their family, and when something new changes, making sure that we are here to be able to answer those questions. Because a lot of times, especially, say, April, May, it was on the phone calls. Patients were calling in, well, I heard this, I heard that. That's what we spent a lot of time doing, is actually just speaking to them on the phone to give them the correct information, not what they may have heard on social media or from a friend or somebody, oh, I heard this. And then they decided to spread that. Dispelling myths and untruths is a big thing that we did, but basically it's making sure the patients are being taken care of, not only when they see me, but also when they aren't, and how to protect themselves, and then making sure that we're around to take care of our patients.
Derek Smith:You talk about that as it impacts you and your patients. You you provide leadership in your field in a lot of different ways. We mentioned your role as president of Harris County Medical Society, a number of other organizations. From a leadership perspective, and just being a part of that large medical community there in Houston, were there any guiding principles, particularly in some of those uncertain early days, that shaped the way you tried to respond, maybe not just for your individual patients, but for your community?
Gary Sheppard:Well, actually last year I was president-elect for Harris County, and our president was a oncologist and he works at MD Anderson. Because I was in private practice in internal medicine working out in the community, most of the times when we had to do radio spots or TV spots or interviews with the newspaper, I was the one doing it instead of him, because I was living it a lot more than he was. I was teasing. it was like, okay, I'm doing a lot more as president-elect than I had planned on doing. I'm supposed to just to sit and watch this year. Actually, that was one of the things I was doing. We were making sure that we were getting out there, talking to people, giving the information, but we also stated that this is what we know at this point. This may change in a week or two weeks or tomorrow because these things are rapidly evolving, but we're going to be here for you to answer your question. So one of the things that we did with Harris County Medical Society, is we made sure that we had a page so that physicians could go to this page on our website, and connect to all these different things, so they could get the latest CDC information. They could get the latest protection, that they could apply for PPE, that they could know how to actually request, say,, PPP loans or any other help that they could get to make sure their practice is open. All of that stuff was on our website, of course, connected to the Texas Medical Association site, and also connected to the CDC. We made sure that it was all in one place for our physicians to get that. It was education, and constant saying that this is evolving, and also making sure that we were hearing what physicians who were on the frontline were saying. What are we doing to make sure that our emergency room and ICU physicians who were really on the front lines of things, what were they doing? What did they need, and how could we support them? Having people not panic and having people wear their masks when we need them to, all of those types of things is what we were doing as a medical community and as Harris County Medical Society.
Derek Smith:Dr. Sheppard, as president of the Harris County Medical Society, when you think about Houston and Harris County, you're talking about... The medical community is such an important part of that. The medical field, Houston, are synonymous with each other. And obviously, there's a lot of important things taking place down there in the medical community, from treating people, to research, to strategic location. What does it mean to you to have that opportunity to provide leadership with your fellow medical practitioners there in Houston?
Gary Sheppard:Overwhelming, I think is the first word that comes to mind. But, it's something that I've enjoyed doing. I'll be finishing up my sixth month on Wednesday, but it's something that I've enjoyed doing. I think it's important for people to be involved. The more people we have involved, actually, the less work one person has to do. If you actually want to work on shaping how things work, you have to get involved. And that's what I've done. It's gotten to the point where, at this point, I'm president. But seeing as myself as president, I see myself as a servant, and I believe in that I am serving the physicians of Harris County and our medical students and our residents. At this point, we have something like 12,400 members.
Gary Sheppard:We are the largest medical society in the country, the largest county medical society in the country. And TMA, which is our state medical association, is the largest state medical society. We have over 55,000 members. We're large organizations, but if you're president, you have to understand that you have a responsibility to that group that you're serving. I have to be concerned about what's going on with the medical students. And we have four medical schools here. I'm sorry, three medical schools here in Harris County. We have to be concerned with what's going on with the medical students and the residents and the physicians in practice and our retired physicians. You have to be concerned with all of those groups while you are serving as president. You have to listen, you have to sometimes get out of your comfort zone. I'm good at private practice because that's what I've done all my life, but I have to be concerned with what happens with my employed physicians in the county, or what happens with the academic physicians. They may have a few other concerns compared to what I have as a private practitioner. Having to make sure that all of those things are thought about and actually addressed. We try our best to do that as a county medical society.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Gary Sheppard, internal medicine physician in private practice at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, Baylor's 2021 Alumnus of The Year. Dr. Sheppard, obviously it's been an eventful year, already. You add a Baylor Alumnus of The Year to your list of accomplishments in recent months. How did you find out that you were Baylor's Alumnus of The Year, and how did you react?
Gary Sheppard:Well, it was sort of strange, actually. Amy called the office and I was actually out for the first time in the entire year of last year. I went on a five-day vacation. It was, I'm leaving. I need rest. I need to get out. I have a friend who lives in the Bahamas, and I actually went and visited, and it was like, okay, I'll be gone. And I can rest. My office manager actually texted me and said, a person from Baylor called to say they needed to speak to you. Something about an alumni award. Okay, I'll see when I get back. So when I got back, I called, and that's when Amy told me. Oh, okay. I was surprised. I knew I had been nominated, because actually the nomination was by one of my patients. I've been his doctor for a number of years, and he's a Baylor alumnus. He says, we need to put your name in. It's like, well, they probably have a lot of other people who are more worthy than I am. I just do my job. No, no, no, no. We're going to put your name in. So he did that, and he got me to get some recommendations from some people I work with, and my pastor emeritus from Wheeler Avenue, which is Reverend William Alexander Lawson, whose birthday it is today, so I got those recommendations, and I sent them to him, and he says, we're going to put this in. And he wrote a nice, also, recommendation for me. I said we'd do it, but I wasn't really thinking that I would receive one of those. But when he would see me, he would say, I'm pretty sure you're going to get one. You're definitely going to get one. He was right.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Gary Sheppard:It was still actually a surprise. A very pleasant surprise, so I just went, oh, okay. Thank you. It was hard to say anything else when Amy told me, but I was definitely honored. I think I just do my job. But I guess when other people look at it sometimes, it's more than what I think of it.
Derek Smith:Well, very cool. You've done your job in an extraordinary year, and providing leadership during these times right now. A lot certainly has gone into that. Dr. Sheppard, a 1987 Baylor graduate, take us back to your Baylor experience a little bit. Did you know you wanted to be a physician when you came here? Tell us a little bit about Dr. Sheppard as a student before you were Dr. Sheppard.
Gary Sheppard:Yes. I already knew that. I actually had decided I wanted to be a physician in the seventh grade. That's when I knew this is what I was supposed to do. There were very few times that I told my parents I'm going to, versus trying to figure out how I can ask them for something. But that was one of the things that I said, I'm going to be a physician. And they looked at me, went, okay. I just came out of the blue with it. Once again, I think I heard my plans from God, and that's where I went. I knew that, so during high school I was preparing for that. I actually hadn't thought about going to Baylor initially, but I went up to Baylor for two weeks. It was a, I think, a forum bureau's leadership conference they would have every summer. And I went up there for that, and once again, I knew that that's where I was supposed to go. That was, I think, maybe my second or third time of announcing to my parents, I'm going to Baylor for undergraduate. Once again, they looked at me, because I hadn't said that before. I had thought about maybe going to Prairie View or going to Morehouse or something like that, but I hadn't necessarily gone to Baylor because I wanted to go to a smaller school versus UT or A&M. I thought they were just too big. I decided that I wanted to go to Baylor and I had to have my high school counselor actually talk me out of not having my SAT score sent only to Baylor. Because it's was like, well, that's were what I want to go. Well, I know, but you want to make sure you have something backup. Well, I don't want to go anywhere else. I was adamant about... But I did as she asked and I sent it to two other schools. It was like, I still don't want to go there. And then actually between my junior and senior year, I went to UT as a merit quarter finalist, I guess I was, and they have a program for there, and they actually offered me a scholarship. I actually had to ask my parents, they're giving me a scholarship, but I don't want to go there. I still want to go to Baylor. And they told me, go where you want to go. We'll take care of the rest. That's how I ended up at Baylor. I went in knowing that I wanted to do pre-med. After my first semester in a really difficult biology that they make really difficult for all of us, I questioned myself several times during that semester. Maybe I should do something else. But I came out of the class just fine, and it was like, oh, okay. Maybe I can do this. Until the next weed-out class, which I think organic chemistry, which made me rethink this again. But for the most part, I had a good advisor and he was actually the biology professor that I had that first semester. And then he was my advisor for the entire four years. He kept me encouraged and making sure that... We have these weed-out classes to make sure people still want to be committed. And I wanted to be committed the entire time.
Derek Smith:Dr. Sheppard, since Baylor, you have shown leadership and service, whether serving in different aspects at your church that you mentioned, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, whether in your field, you mentioned that you serve as president of Harris County Medical Society. Second African-American elected president of Harris County Medical Society, and the first African-American Chief of Staff at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. Where did your sense of service, sense of leadership, you work with young men at your church, sense of being a role model, where did that develop for you?
Gary Sheppard:I think it developed probably from my family first. My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, they were all teachers. I decided I couldn't do that. It looked too hard, because I saw what they had to go through, but that whole idea of actually serving and helping others, that's one of the things you have a responsibility to do. My family always taught me that you're given things, you're given blessings. Your job is to bless others and to help others. I that was reinforced once again at church. That's what we heard every Sunday, is that you've been given gifts. You've got to use those gifts. You can't just sit on those gifts. You've got to use those. We've got to help other people. We have got to bridge the powerful and the powerless, and that's your responsibility. You have that responsibility. You've got to make sure you're serving others, because you may think you don't have a lot, but you have more than others and you should be able to help them. That's one of the things we're always taught at church. And once again, it's also something that was reinforced at Baylor. Maybe that was why I was drawn to that whole idea of serving and being of service and remembering what you've been given and what you need to give to others to help them along. I think it's all of that together, gives me the idea that I know the blessings that I've received. And I know that I have to bless other people with what I've been given. It's just my responsibility. I can't think of not doing that, actually.
Derek Smith:Those are really great thoughts and a really great message for us all to take away. And certainly you've embodied that, and whether it's helped lead, in part, to this Alumni of The Year award, but then also certainly a lot of great work with your patients and in your field down there. We really appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us and give that to us too, to take away from it here at the end. Especially appreciate, I know you're busy with patients today, and you took some time during the middle of that to visit, so I really appreciate that. Thank you so much, Dr. Sheppard.
Gary Sheppard:All right. Thanks Derek. Glad to help.
Derek Smith:Thank you and appreciate you. Again, congratulations on your award as Baylor's 2021 Alumnus of The Year. Dr. Sheppard, internal medicine physician at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.