June 15, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 44

From diagnosis to dance, Dr. Shannon can do it all

Serghino René

Michael W. Shannon has a knack for making life look easy.

A doctor, dancer, professor, advisor to Congress on bioterrorism, author and children’s advocate, Shannon is calm and mannered, a humble charmer at his best.

As associate chief of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital, Shannon has worked his way to the top for the last 30 years. And that is part of reason that Shannon is the first African American professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in the school’s illustrious 200 year history.

“I didn’t think it would happen because it’s the pinnacle... it’s the top,” says Shannon. “Very few professors in the Harvard system make it that far.”

For as long as Shannon can remember, he always wanted to be a doctor and he has done it well. In 2005 he received the Boston Business Journal Award, identifying him as one of Boston’s leaders in healthcare. In one of its edition, Boston Magazine included him in its “40 Bostonians We Love.” He was number 29.

But Shannon’s love for medicine isn’t his only love.

“I like to go tango dancing with my wife,” says Shannon.

In fact, Shannon has had a deep appreciation for the arts, specifically dancing, and has been a dancer for more than he cares to remember. There is no doubt that it has played a major role in his life. Through dancing, he said, he’s been able to express himself in ways that medicine didn’t allow.

Every year, he plays Drosselmeyer in Tony Williams’ production of The Urban Nutcracker at the Strand Theater. He has also played the character of Joseph in Black nativity, the annual gospel written by Langston Hughes.

But Shannon doesn’t have much time for dancing these days. He is not a workaholic, per se, but his time, as well as what he can or cannot do, is dictated by his work. Always on call, he carries his beeper everywhere he goes.

“This is a 24/7 job, but I love it,” says Shannon. “I couldn’t be successful if my family didn’t understand the missed weekend trips, my ballet recitals, missed dinners or outings to the beach. My wife and kids are my support group. They are my anchor, reminding me of who I am and my values.”

Here is a quick run-through of a typical day for Shannon. He’s up and walking to Children’s Hospital by 5:30 a.m. from his home in Brookline. He is at his desk by 6 a.m. and immediately goes through his e-mails.

“I literally go through 100 e-mails a day. No joke,” says Shannon.

If it’s a clinical day, after reading through and responding to e-mails for a couple of hours, he’s with the emergency department from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., doing what he calls “problem solving.” He subsequently reads through more e-mails at the end of his E.R. session before he retires for the day. He is home, hopefully, by 6 or 7 p.m.

On an administrative day, Shannon does his usual morning routine. He attends a teaching conference at 8 a.m., lectures at Harvard Medical School from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., attends three more meetings for the duration of the day, and maybe walks home by 5 p.m.

That doesn’t include the time he puts towards doing research, writing books, articles, traveling around the world or fulfilling a hobby.

Over the course of 25 years, Shannon has authored over 300 papers, reviews and books. He’s well known for his expertise on toxicology and is the author of “Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose,” a comprehensive book on how to treat adults who have come in contact with poisonous substances.

It was through his work with bio-terrorism that his latest passion was born. In 1995, the world was stunned when multiple gas bombs exploded in the Tokyo subway system. At least six people were killed, over 1,200 people were sent to hospitals and thousands reported being sickened by the fumes.

Shannon attended a number of conferences on disaster preparedness, but it became clear that at many of the meetings, he was the only pediatrician familiar with bio-terrorism. He asked himself, “Who was concerned for the children?”

To help solve the problem, Shannon partnered up with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) — a federal agency that funds programming to improve public health — and raised money to establish the Center for Biopreparedness at Children’s Hospital, which teaches and trains other hospital physicians and policy makers about bioterrorism.

It was after 9/11 that Congress appointed Shannon as their bioterrorism advisor.

More than 1 million children have passed through the Children’s Hospital doors over the course of his 24 years there and after treating about 50,000 children a year, it’s safe to assume that Shannon has seen it all.

“You definitely have to have leather skin if you want to do well in this profession,” says Shannon. “Be prepared for criticism all the time and every time.”

Shannon spends a lot of energy, but at the end of the day he feels it is all worth it, knowing that he has accomplished something or had an affect on someone’s life. He oversees 120 physicians at Children’s Hospital, and is responsible for emergency care at Children’s, as well as in Beverly Hospital, Winchester Hospital, Metro West/Framingham Hospital, Norwood Hospital and South Shore Hospital.

“The decisions made running a large program in a demanding, fast-paced environment are critical and can be stressful,” says Shannon. “I consider the domino effect of my decisions and make them carefully.”

Shannon was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo. Shannon’s father was an attorney and his mother was a special education teacher. Shannon attended Washington University for his undergraduate degree and he received his medical degree, as well as his masters degree in public health, from Duke University.

Shannon was just finishing medical school in the early ‘80s when he remembers reading about a virus that had the potential to shut down one’s immune system. At the time, he was heavily involved with the dance community. Eventually, one by one, he saw many of his fellow dancers and personal friends lose their lives to this nameless disease, later known as AIDS.

“As a young doctor, to hear that a virus could rob you of your whole immune system was unbelievable,” says Shannon.

Shannon said that for a period of ten years (roughly 1985-1995), staff in emergency medicine all over the country feared accidental needle stick injuries for fear of contracting the virus.

Around that same time, Shannon began his career in Boston, training in 1980 at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center. Not long after he moved on to Roxbury Comprehensive as a pediatrician, Shannon says his career became less satisfying.

“I wanted to be in emergency care,” says Shannon.

Shannon took a fellowship position at Children’s Hospital in 1984 for emergency medicine and toxicology. He has been there ever since.

Shannon says that he hopes to run his own hospital division and someday be promoted to full-time professor at Harvard Medical School.

“Call it stubbornness or perseverance,” says Shannon. “I call it patience; patience to make it to the top.”



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