PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Claudette J. Shephard, MD
Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecologist;
Director, Residency Training Program, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Tennessee Health Science Center
Hers is a purpose driven life.
As a little girl in the third grade, Claudette Jones (Shephard) knew she was going to become a doctor. She even knew where she was going to medical school.
It didn’t hurt to have a mother who was a nurse and an older sister who became a physician. Her father was also in healthcare for a time as an x-ray technician.
Current Awards/Community Outreach/Appointments
Best Doctors in America, 2001-2010
Medical Director, Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center Board Member, UTMG
Board Examiner – American Board of OB-GYN
Memphis Medical Society – Legislative Committee
Loma Linda University Adventist Health Science Center, Board of Trustees
Board Member, Church Health Center
Board Member, American Cancer Society, Mid-South Division
Founder and Chair, The Oasis Foundation
Being the middle child sandwiched between her older, multi-talented sister and her younger brother, Shephard grew up in New York City with her two siblings. Initially she wanted to be a medical examiner but then, “When I realized I couldn’t have meaningful conversations with my patients, for me that was a critical piece. I then considered family medicine because you take care of the entire family.” She quickly realized that ‘cradle to grave’ was a bit too general.
Following medical school at Loma Linda University, while doing a preceptorship in upstate New York, she worked with a radiologist, a surgeon, an internist and a gynecologist. “It was during that summer that I realized women’s health was my calling and that directed my choice of residency,” she recalled. Her interest in pediatric and adolescent gynecology developed during the residency at SUNY-Health Science Center in Brooklyn. “I appreciated the prevention aspect in family medicine and it helped me realize that gynecology was similar. I don’t like to manage sickness – I like to empower people to take charge of their health. Gynecology allows you to do that.”
So how did a New Yorker end up in Memphis?
“I came to UT for one year to do a fellowship. At the end of that year I was involved with a lot of things in the community so I decided to stay a little longer. One year turned into two and then into 20. I was very involved in community efforts relating to adolescent pregnancy, working with the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Network. That involvement encouraged me to stay here.”
As the only pediatric and adolescent gynecologist in Memphis, Shephard has hospital appointments at Le Bonheur, Methodist, Baptist Women’s Hospital and Baptist DeSoto, St. Jude and The Med. Guided by discernment and a life philosophy of “to whom much is given, much is required,” her spiritual compass informs her life choices. “I came here for one thing and I’m still here. Life doesn’t just happen. I pray about everything,” she said, “…and that has directed what I do.”
“People have different challenges and gifts. You can be the most knowledgeable physician but if your bedside manner (falls short), your patients don’t receive the benefits.”
When asked what she most enjoys about her practice, Shephard, a psychology major in college, admitted that she loves getting into the lives of her patients and knew she had to have that interaction. “I feel that medicine is so much more than just getting the facts. Understanding the patient is so important. Our patients have stories and if you can understand the story behind the patient, you can understand what is going on. Physicians don’t look for stories but sometimes they explain patients’ behavior.
“Being able to work with young girls, helping them to take charge of their health and to make good decisions about life choices, career choices, just life in general… It’s rewarding – and I enjoy it.”
Shephard noted that so many messages teenagers are exposed to are subliminal.
“One day I found myself singing the Michelob jingle. Now, I don’t drink but I kept hearing it. It’s a catchy tune and it was subconscious. Background noise influences behavior. This constant bombardment of messages changes perspective. We used to have to stay up late to see something on TV that might be concerning. Now you can see it for breakfast. The messages we hear are different, as opposed to the conservative environment I was brought up in watching ‘Lucy and Ricky’ on TV, who were married but had separate beds. You are basically desensitizing and changing what the standards are… so there are a lot of struggles (for the young).”
Though not pleasant issues to address, Shephard encounters sexual abuse and assault in her practice. “There are girls who have been abused since they were children,” she continued. “They think the purpose of their body is for a male to abuse them. What kind of individuals will they grow up to be? Every male in their family has abused them. Those are the stories that teenagers are not going to tell you unless you ask the questions.”
Beginning her fifth year as director of the OB-GYN residency training program, Shephard emphasizes to her residents the imperative of their being specific in asking questions and understanding the dynamics of their patients’ behavior. “You can’t treat them like adults.”
When the younger patients come in with a torn hymen or a vaginal discharge, the approach is far different from the adolescents who present with a sexually related problem, according to Shephard, who said that adolescents have the emotional effects to deal with, layered on top of the larger issues related to the confusing transition of adolescence. “I spend a lot of time counseling to give them a reality check…” This is how she extracts the issues her patients are struggling with. “They are dealing with challenges and temptations that simply didn’t exist when I was a kid,” she explained.
To illustrate, “One of my patients told her mother she’s going to Jane’s house. Of course when she gets to Jane’s house, her older brother is having a party and my patient got raped. I tried to help her understand that it’s a jungle out there and it’s important for her to be aware of what is going on. She found herself in a situation she didn’t plan on. I explained how her behavior influences what happens to her.”
Shephard gives her patients stories from the field to make an impression and patients are encouraged to share their spiritual life and upbringing. “Many times when I counsel a patient, I ask about their background because if I tap into their belief system, I can speak their language. I know what they’ve been taught and I can address it from their perspective and put it into language they understand. It’s more effective than telling them what I think they should do.
As for how Shephard feels about this mentoring role, “I enjoy it. If I had to just do pap smears every day, I’d go crazy.”
Shephard also counsels parents. Among the trickiest situations she encounters are suspicions of sexual abuse. Most sexual abuse leaves no marks though there is a lot of emotional trauma. The parents are reassured that they are not going crazy and that their child is not making it up. “My role is to help the family. That is a quiet sort of counseling ministry that I find myself involved in. I prepare parents for the interrogation that will follow reporting, which can be quite uncomfortable.”
A cherished personal achievement is the establishment of the Oasis Foundation, a non-profit, community-based health ministry (www.theoasisfoundation.org).
The concept is “an oasis of hope in life’s desert of despair.” As founder, she initially hoped to establish a wellness center. The realization of the costs and overhead made that goal unattainable but the health ministry continues and Shephard is a frequent speaker at her own church in Frayser, where she is health minister, and at other churches promoting wellness. “Oasis didn’t realize its original goal but I get to work with a lot of people with similar goals and interests. This is generally the way people learn about health – through their communities. People often go to the doctor and don’t get their questions answered…I enjoy getting to them before they need to come, and it’s in a relaxed community setting.
Community-based health is my passion.”
With her apologies to Stephen Covey, PhD, one of Shephard’s goals is to write a book entitled, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Residents,” covering the six competencies and the seventh? Well, she’s not sure. “The concepts in Covey’s book apply to life – taking them and channeling them to different areas,” said Shephard.
Another book she plans to write is about the process of becoming a woman. “I frequently title my lectures on pediatric gynecology, ‘On Becoming a Woman.’ If someone could just follow me around and take it all down,” she laughed. “I’ll probably never get it all written down.”
Though residing in Memphis for 20 years with her husband and their 13 year old son, Shephard doesn’t claim to be a Southerner…yet. Does she plan to stay? “My Facebook page says I am still here in Memphis to stamp out teen pregnancy.” A tireless advocate, she added, “Every day I just try to see the next challenge… I feel that what I am doing is what God wants me to do.”
In a city her colleagues agree is richer for it.