This past Sunday, 149 new Perelman School of Medicine graduates marked their transition from students to doctors as they received their diplomas. Family, friends, alumni, faculty, and students cheered on the new graduates—celebrating the future physicians, researchers, and surgeons, and reminiscing on the paths each student took to get to this moment. For graduate Shelley Henderson, she recalls a unique point in her medical school career that changed her perspective on becoming a physician.
In May 2017, Henderson, a second-year medical student at the time, sat in her car on the phone with her father’s doctor, while her husband and two children ran errands at Target. Despite the unusual setting, this call is a significant moment for Henderson—it’s a call that showed her the type of doctor she wants to be.
Henderson, whose father was recently diagnosed with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, helped connect him with doctors at Penn, but was unable to attend his first appointment with his radiation oncologist, John Plastaras, MD, Phd, as she was in the middle of her surgery rotation. She gave her father a long list of questions to ask Plastaras so they could prepare as a family for what was to come. But this phone call from him surprised her.
“I could hear in the background that he was getting ready to go home, but he still took the time to speak with me and walk through the long list of questions I had,” Henderson said. “He went down the list—question by question—to make sure I understood everything that was going to happen.”
What’s more, instead of ending the call once they talked through her questions, he paused to check in on Henderson—asking how she was handling everything as a medical student, even offering to connect her with other support systems across Penn during her father’s treatment.
“I was in tears by the time I got off the phone. I don’t think he has any idea of the impact this call had on me as a medical student and how much it impacted my Dad as a patient. Those 30 minutes he spent on the phone and the time he took to check in on me … that’s what I want to be as a doctor. That will forever embody for me what medicine can and should be.”
Four years earlier, Henderson was at a different crossroads—deciding if she should continue her career in education, working with Teach for America (TFA) in Jacksonville, Fla., or if she should follow her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Henderson, a Philadelphia native, landed in Florida after graduating from Harvard University in 2011, joining TFA as a science teacher. There, Henderson discovered a passion for education, loving the impact she could have on the lives of so many students. But it was the desire to treat patients and give back to communities through public health efforts that brought Henderson back to Philadelphia and to Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
With a happy toddler and husband in tow, Henderson and her family moved to Philadelphia in 2015 and she hit the ground running with her first year of medical school. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned for the family. Her husband, who serves as a submariner with the U.S. Navy, was sent back out to sea in 2017. At the same time, Henderson began taking care of her nine-year-old niece full time, helping her sister who suffers from type 1 diabetes.
“My mom has been my rock,” Henderson explains when asked how she manages to balance taking care of her family members while in the throes of medicine school. In addition to her family, Henderson’s friends, neighbors, and students offered to help when she needed extra hands and time to study.
“Balancing medical school and raising a family was tough,” Henderson says. “I learned so much humility. It became a season of my life where I was okay asking others and accepting help where I could get it. It was extremely humbling. There is a long list of people I can turn to, which is a blessing.”
Giving back and helping others is part of Henderson’s character, as well. As a medical student, she infused her passion for community outreach and public health into a week-long event called Solidarity Week—a celebration of compassionate, patient-centered care. Henderson, the chair of patient and community engagement for the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) at Penn, developed the theme for 2019’s Solidarity Week and coordinated a series of events focused on the history and relationship between Penn and the West Philadelphia community. Through various events—from town halls to a tour of the city’s famed public mural arts—Henderson and GHHS provided students with opportunities to learn about the diverse patient populations in Philadelphia and feel more connected with the patients Penn serves.
Henderson’s hope is that this theme will guide each Solidarity Week moving forward. “You can engage in better conversations with patients if you know who they are,” she explains.
Her drive to give back to the community shapes her medical career aspirations as well. Henderson is preparing to start residency in Family Medicine at Penn. She’ll then work with the National Health Service Corps, providing primary health care in high-needs neighborhoods.
“I want to give back to Philly. I want to have the type of career that significantly impacts how primary care is done—especially in low-economic communities. By partnering with communities we can change the way medicine is done and improve the health of our patients.”
On Sunday, Henderson crossed the stage with A.J. and Jaylynn, celebrating her graduation and her next steps as a resident. “I’m trusting residency will be crazy, but everything will work out—that has been proven time and time again with my medical school experience.”
“This is a hard-won battle for all, and I’m excited to celebrate with everyone,” she continues. “I would put so many names on this degree if I could. Everyone has put so much effort into this venture. It really took a team to get here.”
To read more graduation stories about Perelman School of Medicine students, check out this blog post about the inaugural cohort of Penn’s Master of Health Care Innovation program.