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