Champion for Change Sheryl Heron

Champion for Change Sheryl Heronby Stacey Jones

When Sheryl Heron received the Champions for Change Award from the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence in May, she dedicated the honor to her parents, Basil and Amy Heron, who were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary the next day. “They have given me the foundation, the will, the courage to strive and be who I am destined to be,” she said in her acceptance speech.

“My parents surrounded me with the capacity and the ability to believe I could do anything,” Heron explained later.  “You have to have love and not violence for this to occur.” In her practice as an emergency room physician at Grady Memorial Hospital, she sees many patients who have too much violence and too little love in their lives. Some people with her background—a loving nuclear family, no history of family abuse—would have a hard time empathizing with the victims of domestic violence. But as a medical resident, Heron—who received a master’s in public health before pursuing her medical degree—saw the parade of people beaten, stabbed, and otherwise abused by people who claimed to love them. She therefore started to ask why this happened and, more important, how she could begin to help.

Most immediately, Heron now helps by patching up the victims of violence, stabilizing them, and admitting them to the hospital for further care or sending them on their way. In doing so, she has learned to listen and has developed a set of tools so that other medical practitioners may begin to uncover a diagnosis of intimate partner violence in the fading bruises, the healed but unset broken bones, and the chronic pain of their patients.

Heron said she “probably sees someone on every shift” who presents signs of intimate partner violence. “Sometimes it’s obvious: someone is struck in the face, strangled, shot, or sexually assaulted,” she said. But domestic violence also shows up as persistent abdominal pain and headaches, and it is up to doctors to be savvy enough to put it on the list of possible diagnoses.

In her nearly two decades of practicing medicine, Heron has learned not to force the issue with patients who may be the victims of violence or to feel too discouraged when they leave her care only to return to partners who abuse them. “The ability to meet patients where they are is enough for me,” she said. All movement is progress, no matter how slight, she believes. “You can’t fix people, and you can’t embrace their unwillingness or inability as a personal failure or think that you’ve failed that person,” Heron said she tells her students. “Domestic violence is a complex issue,” she added, “with so many facets and nuances that we have to be patient with ourselves as well as our patients.” At some point, what she calls “a constellation of conversations” with patients can lead them out of an unhealthy relationship and on the road to saving themselves from abuse.

After a precocious beginning to higher education—Heron started college at the age of sixteen and graduated at age twenty—she settled into medicine at age thirty, first getting her degree from Howard University, completing a residency at Los Angeles’ MLK Jr./Charles Drew Medical Center, and then coming to Emory for a Center for Injury Control fellowship in 1997. Now an associate director in the Department of Emergency Medicine, she also serves as an associate director for the Center for Injury Control, assistant dean of medical education and student affairs at the School of Medicine, and associate residency program director for Emergency Medicine at Grady. That is in addition to the dozens of committees on which she serves inside and outside Emory.

Despite her packed schedule, Heron staves off burnout with a healthy dose of self-care. “You have to give yourself permission to take time off,” she said. The Jamaican-born Heron, who married for the first time at the relatively late age of forty-four, calls her husband, Boniface, one of the most remarkable people she has ever met. “He’s incredibly supportive of the work I do,” she said.

Accepting the Champions for Change Award, Heron acknowledged the many personal champions she has had in her own life, those who have helped her become the strong advocate she is today. Specifically, she gave credit to the people she works to serve. “The true champions are the women and children who boldly change their lives each day—when they flee their abuser, seek to begin a new life, courageously refuse to give into a society that still struggles with how to hold batterers accountable for the violence,” she said when receiving her award.

All the good Heron has done to bring attention to the issue of domestic abuse and other forms of violence in Georgia and elsewhere is beginning to pay off in the same measured but incremental way in which her patients work to turn their lives around and end the cycle of abuse.

For more on Heron’s work on intimate partner violence, see this previous article: "Intimate Partner Violence: Its Relevance at Emory."

Stacey Jones serves on the Center for Women at Emory (CWE) Editorial Board and is a past chair of the CWE Advisory Council.