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Ryan White Voices

The Children Wailed

“Each child is looking to be picked up. Their arms are reaching out, craving any human contact."

“I’ve seen children too ill to cry who have this intensity in their eyes, struggling to live. It’s burned in my memory.”

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Sheila Davis: Continued

“Howard didn’t want to be known for being an HIV university but it was still an important topic to cover in nursing,” says Sheila. It was a course that few people wanted to take, but for many it was required. Sheila describes this time as being difficult while simultaneously being both a learning and growing experience.

“It was also the first time in my life where I was the minority.” It is eye opening to suddenly be regarded in the same way many racial minorities are in this country and what gay men and people living with HIV have to face— the label of being different. This experience would later prepare Sheila for the work she would do in Africa, once again the minority trying to educate and earn the trust of a community of which she was not a part.

In addition to teaching, Sheila worked as a primary care liaison/research nurse in the HIV unit at D.C. General, the city’s only public hospital, and a major care provider to the under- and uninsured, until its closure in 2001. It was there that Sheila began to recognize the growing number of women coming into the hospital with AIDS, a development that was somewhat surprising, since Sheila had heard no mention in the media of minority women and AIDS prevalence. She didn’t know it then, but a large portion of her career would later be dedicated to women like these.

“It felt like playing God.”

In 1997 Sheila went back to school to become an Adult Nurse Practitioner because she realized that she enjoyed one-on-one patient/provider interaction more than she did research and teaching. After graduating with her master’s in nursing she was hired at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Outpatient Infectious Diseases Unit, where she began caring for women infected with HIV.

How Sheila has made a difference to these women was let their concerns come first. Sheila says, “I’m very fortunate that I don’t work at an HMO so I have 30 minutes for follow-ups. I’ve really gotten to know these women and I’ve also come to understand that you’re not the authority on someone else’s body, even if you have the medical and clinical knowledge.”

Indeed, Sheila explains that understanding patients’ health extends beyond learning how to read their vitals. “You’re going to learn so much just by listening to the patient. As a nurse you have the responsibility to the betterment of humanity and, therefore, I tell students to keep your eyes open and your mouths shut. The patients’ priorities are different than mine, whether it’s how to get their five-year-old to fall asleep or have their electricity turned on. Either way, if I push my concerns on them, they will tune me out so we try to cover their needs and then find time for mine.”

Sheila also began traveling abroad to places like Haiti and Africa, and admits that she has cried at times for her patients and herself because so much needs to be done. An experience that haunts Sheila was a trip to an orphanage in Haiti. The room was packed with over 20 cribs, all of which held two infants or toddlers. The children wailed and together their voices became one loud cry. “Each child is looking to be picked up. Their arms are reaching out, craving any human contact,” Sheila recalls.

“I picked up one little girl whose bed said she was 18 months old but she looked more like 6 months old. She clung to my shirt like her life depended on it. I’ve seen children too ill to cry who have this intensity in their eyes, struggling to live. It’s burned in my memory.

“I also vividly remember literally sitting there in a small room in Africa and we had enough medicine for 15 people and having to decide who got the medicine and who we would send away.” recalls Sheila. “It felt like playing God.”

“The only way to cope and not become overwhelmed with anger,” she advises, “is to avoid absorbing all of it, to recognize that you are trying to make a difference and that is still a lot.”


Sheila, along with a colleague, Chris Shaw, took their expertise to a South African clinic set up through Massachusetts General Partners in AIDS Research Center, an affiliate of Harvard University. Inspired by their experiences, they founded a nursing nonprofit organization, Sibusiso (“blessing” in Zulu), which is named after a boy whose mother died of AIDS at the clinic.

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