By Alexandra Becker
As early as the seventh grade, Dr. Gary Sheppard knew he wanted to become a physician. He’d always enjoyed science, and the idea of helping people at the same time appealed to him. There were no doctors in his family and no life-altering events that shaped this decision: he simply knew it was right, and so he worked toward that vocation, first earning his medical degree at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), then completing his residency at what is now McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Now, Sheppard has his own private practice in internal medicine on the campus of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital and serves as president of the Harris County Medical Society—but there is so much more to his story.
“My favorite part of my job is being able to help people make changes that will hopefully help them live longer, and also improve their quality of life,” Sheppard said about practicing internal medicine. “Whether that’s helping someone be healthy enough so that they can go to their grandchild’s wedding and dance, or be able to take that trip they’ve always wanted to take.”
In his practice, Sheppard focuses on many health conditions that can be improved through lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise. He works closely with his patients to help them understand their risk factors but also empowers them to make decisions that will help control their health and, ultimately, their wellbeing.
“One of the things I tell my patients is that we can’t change your family history, but we can change how your body responds to that family history,” Sheppard explained. “I can’t change the fact that people in your family have high blood pressure, but we can work on your weight, decrease the salt in your diet, start an exercise program and evaluate poor eating habits. Just because you’re at risk for something doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion.”
As president of the Harris County Medical Society (HCMS), Sheppard works closely with the Executive Board and staff, overseeing the strategic plan and working to help execute the organization’s missions. He’s been an active member of the society since he was a resident and has served in the past on the Boards of Ethics and Socioeconomics, including being elected as Chair of each. He also served in each of the seven offices of HCMS. He’s especially driven to help fellow physicians through his various roles in both local and national medical organizations.
“We’re always advocating for our patients, but we also have to advocate for physicians,” Sheppard said. “Physicians are good about taking care of others, but they’re not as good about taking care of themselves sometimes. When we make sure doctors are able to be good doctors—to do their job well but also take care of themselves—they are also better able to take care of patients.”
Between his roles in medical organizations and his reputation as a doctor, Sheppard’s career thus far has been distinguished. It’s also been one marked by a few firsts, all long overdue: Sheppard was the first African American Chief of Staff at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and only the second African American to be elected President of the Harris County Medical Society.
“A lot of times you find yourself being the first, or being one of the only African Americans in a certain situation, and you realize that you’re representing not only yourself, but you’re also representing your heritage and your culture,” Sheppard said. “That’s why knowing your heritage is so important. Ideally, we wouldn’t need Black History Month—everybody would be represented in history as it’s taught and celebrated, whether it’s Hispanic or Native American or African American, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”
Sheppard stressed the importance of being proud of one’s heritage and recognizing all of the many contributions made by different cultures, races and ethnicities. Our differences, he said, should be celebrated—not just one month out of the year, but always.
It’s something he stands by in his personal life, too. One of Sheppard’s favorite pastimes is to travel the world, where he can experience new adventures, environments and cultures. He reached his goal of traveling to all seven continents after a 2009 trip to Antarctica.
“Physicians tend to work all the time and not take time off, but I’ve made it my rule to take a two-week vacation every year,” Sheppard said, adding that his latest goal is to visit a new country every year—as soon as the pandemic is over, of course. “When I go, I’m completely gone. I’m not answering emails or calling into the office. This is me being responsible and taking care of myself in order to decrease my stress.”
Sheppard is also deeply involved in his church, serving as a trustee, the director of the hand bell choir, and as a sign language interpreter. He is also a mentor in a program his church hosts called Boys Rites of Passage, where he and others help guide boys in middle school and early high school as they grow into young adults.
“It’s similar to what happens in many African villages, where the elders would take preteens and teens and teach them how to be men,” Sheppard said. “They don’t always love it when they’re in it, but later they’ll come back and say what a difference it made—that they’ve been able to navigate things in their life better because of that experience.”
It’s a theme that runs throughout Sheppard’s life—whether it’s helping his patients, fellow physicians or members of his church—that his time and effort does make a difference. This year, he is being recognized for those contributions by Baylor University, where he completed his undergraduate degree, as their Outstanding Alumnus for 2021. He is a true role model: a physician, a traveler, a man of faith, a mentor, and so much more.