Longtime director of the UW program for pediatric patients with HIV, Sheryl Henderson, will retire in June

In a few months, Sheryl Henderson, MD, PhD, associate professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, will step away from her long career in research and clinical practice and begin her retirement. Since 2011 when she joined the Department of Pediatrics, Henderson has served as the medical director of the Pediatric/Adolescent/Young Adult (PAYA) Program of the UW Health HIV Care and Prevention Clinic. She is also the Wisconsin South and Western Regional medical director of the Wisconsin Primary HIV Care Support Network, based at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and the medical director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at the American Family Children’s Hospital.

“HIV is still very much present,” Henderson said. “Although a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, HIV infection is still very serious. Youth living with HIV face hard challenges, including continued stigma.”

Chemistry and scientific research were Henderson’s initial vision for herself before a family friend suggested that she should consider medicine because he thought she would be a good doctor. An MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins allowed Henderson to do both, earning an MD and a PhD in biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology. Her subsequent pediatric infectious diseases fellowship was at Emory University School of Medicine.

Prior to her joining the UW Department of Pediatrics — a return to Madison, her hometown — Henderson served 12 years as assistant professor in Pediatric Infectious Diseases with Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. There she also served as acting medical director of the Grady Pediatric and Adolescent Infectious Disease HIV Clinic from 2007 to 2008.

Henderson’s continuing work with pediatric patients living with HIV and their families has defined and guided her career in many ways. That work also prepared her for the local community role she took on in 2020. For more than three years, Henderson spoke to numerous groups in community centers and churches and through online events, addressing the disruption, fear, rampant misinformation, and myriad questions generated by the second pandemic she faced in her career, COVID-19.

In addition, Henderson has been involved in groups to strengthen the university and the department’s goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has supported medical students as a mentor in the Building Equitable Access to Mentoring, or BEAM, program and has been an integral part of the department’s educational programs addressing DEI. Her efforts in all of these areas resulted in her being selected for UW–Madison’s Outstanding Woman of Color Award in 2022.

When Henderson was invited into the Department of Pediatrics, Ellen Wald, MD, professor, also in the Division of Infectious Diseases, was serving as the department chair. Wald came to know Henderson very well. “It was with great enthusiasm that we welcomed Dr. Sheryl Henderson to our faculty in 2011. Dr Henderson was incredibly well-trained and had a special interest and expertise in the care and management of children and adolescents living with HIV,” Wald recalled. “She has brought so much to our department and community. Dr. Henderson is a very accomplished, thorough, kind, warm, and highly respected ID physician. She has been a role model of compassion and caring in her personal life as well as a strong and dedicated mentor professionally. But more than anything, she has been a trusted, knowledgeable, and unfailingly patient and effective advocate and resource for the community during those times when it was most needed.”

Joseph McBride, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases, will take over Henderson’s responsibilities with the PAYA Program of the UW Health HIV Care and Prevention Clinic when she retires.

Five Questions with Dr. Sheryl Henderson

How has your career surprised you, compared to how you had expected it to develop when you began?

When I first started at Emory, I anticipated that I would commit a large portion of my time to the lab studying HIV diagnostics. However, during this time I was also working with pediatric HIV patients — not only providing their HIV care but also working as their general pediatrician. I was working with entire families that were living with and affected by HIV — and at the time it was a devastating illness. I came to recognize that I really much preferred to be seeing patients every day and working in a field that was, and still is, advancing rapidly.

Over time, I have also recognized the power of vaccines. During my residency there was always a child in the hospital with pneumococcal meningitis, and now, with vaccines against pneumococcus, we rarely see this. This is true for so many vaccine-preventable illnesses. Advances in the field can really lead toward good health for our patients — and for the general public.

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement?

I value being able to establish strong relationships with patients and their families over a long period of time. And I hope that my colleagues and I have had a positive impact on their health overall. My most fun achievement is being the medical director of Camp High Five, a camp for kids affected by HIV in Georgia that we started in 2000. I enjoy going back each year to see the counselors that I once held as infants and their families.

What has been your largest obstacle to overcome?

The misinformation around COVID-19 was magnitudes greater than any of us anticipated, and it was greater than what we encountered around HIV. A major obstacle was trying to speak about the facts in a setting where not everyone was going to hear and apply them. I learned that I should start my community talks by establishing my expertise. I would state that I have over 30 years of experience working with viruses, both in the lab and as vectors of disease. I have experience working in vaccine trials and know how to interpret the data. Then people had to decide whether to accept the information or not.

What advice would you offer to new physicians just starting out?

I advise new physicians to seek out mentors, continually ask questions, and see if there is an area of interest that really fits them. If a physician finds that there is a career path that would work better for them once they have started, they shouldn’t be afraid to explore and change. Fortunately, these days there are opportunities for students to shadow physicians. When I was in the lab as an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to shadow my preceptor, a physician-investigator. That one day in the clinic really shaped the path I took toward the MD/PhD program. I saw what was possible. The University of Wisconsin is full of extraordinary people and opportunities for students as well as new physicians. It has a collegial and collaborative atmosphere, and I have been able to thrive in it. I have had the support of many faculty and colleagues here throughout this journey.

Do you have specific plans for your retirement?

I am not fully ready to stop being a clinician. I have always been interested in traveling and being a locum tenens physician, so now is the time. I will have the opportunity to see different parts of the country and different health care systems, and as an ID physician encounter different organisms. I will be able to commit some more of my time to volunteer activities and to a couple of the boards that I sit on. I also look forward to having more time with my extended family and further developing some of my musical interests. You just may see me playing my harp in the atrium someday.

Photo by Bob Gordon/Department of Pediatrics