Jenny Shepherd has a story to tell.
“I care about what’s happening in my community, and I want to improve it,” the Texas Medical Association Alliance (TMAA) president-elect said. “Saying that you don’t care about politics, especially concerning medicine, is the same as saying that you don’t care about your quality of life and the way medicine is practiced in Texas.”
The tireless medical advocate has shared that message through her various roles working with legislators, community members, and physicians to strengthen health care, raise funds for bodies within organized medicine, and better her community. Her efforts have bolstered medicine’s visibility in the political sphere and, her favorite part, brought people together.
They also earned her this year’s June Bratcher Award for Political Action, making her the first person to win the Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee (TEXPAC) accolade twice.
Named for its first recipient, TMAA leader and political trailblazer June Bratcher of San Antonio, the award honors a member of the TMA Alliance – the association’s advocacy and community service volunteer force – who has shown significant involvement in a political campaign to aid organized medicine.
That’s a typical day for Ms. Shepherd.
Like Ms. Bratcher, who launched grassroots campaigns in the mid-1970s to encourage physicians and other health professionals in San Antonio to vote for medically minded candidates, Ms. Shepherd successfully campaigned and raised funds for local lawmakers who had expressed support for Texas medicine.
“June Bratcher was told that ‘nice wives’ don’t get involved in politics. But even though she was told that politics was not for her, she kept going and changed the landscape of how women and physician spouses are involved in the political medical environment,” Ms. Shepherd said.
“I knew to make real change, I had to channel my ‘inner June’ to get these candidates (state Rep. Leo Pacheco and state Sen. Jose Menendez, both Democrats from San Antonio) elected. I had to speak one-on-one to voters and share the real impact of our cause.”
By sharing personal anecdotes on the importance of electing medicine’s supporters and connecting with voters on an emotional level, Ms. Shepherd built support for both candidates. Her storytelling approach played a vital role in their eventual elections.
“This is what I love to do. I’m a cheerleader. I’m an inviter. I’m an advocate,” she told Texas Medicine. “The statistics may get the issue noticed, but the real-life stories we share get the vote.”
Initially, Ms. Shepherd believed she wasn’t “qualified” to be an advocate for medicine and was hesitant to showcase her passion for health care and its most staunch defenders – physicians and their families.
As the spouse of pediatric anesthesiologist John Shepherd, MD, however, she understood the demands placed upon physicians and what it would take politically to keep their community healthy.
“I’m not an attorney, I’m not a legislator, and I’m not a physician,” she said. “But I realized that I already had all the skills I needed. Advocacy is talking with legislators about what’s going on in the medical community, how doctors are struggling, and how their patients are struggling. It’s about telling a story to help the ones you love.”
Ms. Shepherd’s passion grew after attending TMA’s award-winning advocacy program, First Tuesdays at the Capitol, in 2018, the year she became president of the Bexar County Medical Society Alliance (BCMSA). She participated every year thereafter to educate Bexar County legislators on meaningful Medicaid reform, scope-of-practice creep, and improving health care coverage and access for mothers and their babies.
Eventually, Ms. Shepherd became the First Tuesdays chair for the TMA Alliance, and continued her work in several leadership roles within BCMSA, including as scholarship chair and legislative chair. She attended every First Tuesdays event this year, which is the program’s 20th anniversary, and spoke to its impact at the March event celebrating this milestone.
“First Tuesdays is an award-winning program. It gets results; it gets us seen; it is what we have to do to get the business of medicine done and practice medicine the way you want to practice medicine. … Nothing looks more impressive than the sea of white coats,” Ms. Shepherd said during the inaugural TMA event of 2023 in February. She now serves as the TMA Alliance membership chair for TEXPAC and the vice president of membership for TMAA, using her story to encourage physicians and their families to join their ranks as medical activists.
“The work doesn’t get done without those who show up to First Tuesdays and meet with their legislators,” Ms. Shepherd told Texas Medicine. “I’m sending the invitation. … All you need to do is RSVP.”
Party of Medicine
In fact, she created her own Party of Medicine events to encourage physicians and their families to connect and become involved in advocacy – and, of course, to have fun.
The parties connected members of the medical community and showcased Ms. Shepherd’s hospitality skills. Each event included signage designed to educate and encourage conversation among medical professionals and information on TEXPAC and other organizations each attendee could join after the party.
“We threw a party for those uninvolved in advocacy to learn about what we do,” she said. “At the end of the night, almost all attendees joined TEXPAC, their county medical society, or county alliance. This event helped them to become more involved … [a]nd have a great time.”
In June 2020, Ms. Shepherd was honored with the American Medical Association Alliance’s Legislative Education and Awareness Promotion Award for the parties she hosted in her home in San Antonio and across the state.
Ms. Shepherd’s desire to help others, coupled with what her friends call a “love for fun,” has enabled her to become a force of support for the medical community.
“Jenny puts so much work into whatever she does. Every event she holds comes out so beautifully,” Pam Udall, TMA’s vice president of communications and marketing said. “More importantly, her real talent is building relationships between legislators and their physician constituents. She’s a natural fundraiser, educator, connector, and leader. She is just brilliant.”
The events, which Ms. Shepherd planned and advertised herself, boosted TEXPAC membership and raised funds for TEXPAC-endorsed candidates.
“We have to be examples of advocacy if we expect others to help,” Ms. Shepherd said. “Having more people join bodies like TMA and the alliance creates better medicine in Texas.”
She has since hosted fundraisers where physicians and their spouses can meet TEXPAC-endorsed candidates running for office and contribute to their campaigns. These fundraisers are an “excellent way to build long-lasting relationships that are key to medicine’s success during the legislative session,” said TEXPAC Director Christine Mojezati.
“I know I can always count on Jenny and Dr. Shepherd to host an amazing event and get results. In the short time I’ve known Jenny, she has proved her 100% commitment to medicine and its successes,” Ms. Mojezati said.
Ms. Shepherd also has raised funds and volunteered for TMA’s Vaccines Defend What Matters (formerly Be Wise – Immunize) and Hard Hats for Little Heads campaigns; coordinated a toy donation for the neonatal department of University Hospital; and worked with BCMSA to award scholarships to medical students and others, such as future audiologists.
“It makes such a difference in students’ lives and is directly impactful in Bexar County,” she said. “Nothing makes me happier than serving as a mentor for the next generation and recognizing potential leaders to nurture.”
Ms. Shepherd’s efforts serve as a reminder that effective advocacy requires more than just facts and figures. To truly make an impact, she says, the only required skill advocates need is that of caring.
“It’s my job to tell people who think they don’t have the skills for advocacy that they do,” Ms. Shepherd said. “To be an advocate, you just have to care about your community.”