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Know Your Neighbor: Dean Shakira Henderson

Know Your Neighbor: Dean Shakira Henderson

By Jennifer Kennedy  

It was 4 a.m. and graduate student Shakira Henderson was on her way to the microbiology lab to conduct research. At that early hour the budding bench scientist had to enter the building through the nursing school. A colorful poster promoting nursing research caught her eye. The pivotal moment transformed her educational aspirations.  

Growing up on the small Caribbean Island of Dominica, Henderson was academically focused as a child, driven by the desire to attend college in the United States. She was pursuing the STEM degree she had always envisioned; the timing was not ideal for a career pivot.  

Her life had been filled with powerful female role models that instilled confidence. The message that surrounded her upbringing was that she could achieve anything she desired.  

As Henderson studied the poster, she pondered the idea of combining healthcare research and patient care. She enjoyed interpersonal interactions and the cells she had been working with never talked back.  

Fierce Impact  

She added to her studies an ambitious accelerated program to become a research-focused neonatal nurse.  Always looking for a challenge, Henderson thought working with newborn infants that could not communicate would be the best way to hone her assessment skills.  

Later, at Baptist Health South Miami Hospital, the nationally recognized leader developed a special interest in lactation, coining the term “breastaurant.” At the time, less than 1% of NICU babies were breastfed – an option proven to provide vital resources to premature infants’ developing brains. She worked closely with new mothers at their bedsides to discover the hurdles they were facing. 

Henderson provided ten nurses with advanced lactation support training and after just two years, 80% of the mothers of neonatal intensive care babies at the hospital were successfully breastfeeding. Lactation counseling became the top-performing patient satisfaction question.  

New Chapter : University of Florida  

In January, Shakira Henderson, Ph.D., D.N.P, M.S., M.P.H, EMBA was named dean of the University of Florida College of Nursing, the sixth in its 67-year history.  She brings numerous advanced degrees and a wealth of experience to her new role as dean and System Chief Nurse Executive for UF Health

The 2023 president of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses remains committed to elevating and advocating for the profession. She looks forward to inspiring and supporting a new generation of nurses. Her primary focus amidst the nursing shortage is on how to best equip students with the tools needed to face the growing mental demands of patient care.  

“Nursing is a special profession because you get to spend the most time with the patient and truly know them,” Henderson said. “You are their eyes and ears and share critical pieces of information with the physician and other team care members.” 

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She knows nurses can make an impact during someone’s darkest hour. One patient’s story, that she still carries with her today, embodies this message.  

March of Dimes Nurse of the Year 

In 2011, when Henderson was presented with the March of Dimes Nurse of the Year Award, a woman stepped up to the podium while her happy toddler circled her onstage.  

With tears streaming down her face, she detailed how a neonatal nurse taught her how to care for her medically fragile son while the world seemed to be crumbling around her. The young mother recalled that she was afraid to touch her baby and other medical professionals did nothing to encourage the interaction.  

As Henderson provided care, she helped the new mom realize that she was what her son needed most. The time she took to gently instruct her on how to safely bathe, dress and feed her baby instilled the confidence she craved.  

Henderson shared the same level of emotion as she summarized her message to aspiring nurses at the University of Florida, “Nursing is more than just a job,” she said. “It’s a calling.” 

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