Galen Henderson, MD, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, was introduced to organ donation during his first year of residency. That experience has inspired him for 30 years as a neurologist and neuro intensivist.
“I was on call and there was a patient at the hospital who had a possible neurological catastrophe, and I was asked to go into the operating room to see the patient, he says. “After examining the patient, I called my attending to discuss what was going on, and it dawned on me that this person probably was the early phase of meeting the criteria for brain death. I learned about the opportunities of people who could be saved, and that person did donate and saved seven other people, and that was truly, truly impactful for me.”
He went on to serve on the National Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative and received awards from three different secretaries of Health and Human Services for his contributions there.
He’s shared his expertise with the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance, where in 2021 he co-led the Foundational Perspectives of Organ Donation course with Dr. Chris Michetti, associate chief of Trauma/Acute Care Surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital. In 2017, he was one of the course chairs for the Organ Donation Advanced Seminar for Standardized Clinic Education.
Dr. Henderson is also the director of the division of neurocritical care and the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. As a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, he teaches and trains researchers, medical students, residents, fellows and other physicians. He is also the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the more than 5,000 faculty, trainees and students with a focus on the recruitment, retention, and promotion within Harvard.
Dr. Henderson comes from a family deeply rooted in education and achievement. A native of Tunica, MS, his father was an educator, and his mother owned an industrial chemical company and several other small businesses. “A master’s degree was the minimum level of education expected within my family,” says Henderson.
“I’m trained as a neuro intensivist, so I spend my clinical time in a neuro ICU,” says Dr. Henderson. “And there are many patients who have neurological injuries, and the families will need to make a decision. They say he or she would not want to live in this devastating neurological condition, this quality of life is not acceptable, and they make the decision to redirect the goals of care to comfort measures. When that happens, there may be an opportunity for some patients to also donate organs.”
Dr. Henderson says he was always interested in science and majored in chemistry at Tougaloo College and planned to pursue a PH.D. in chemistry until an advisor suggested he consider medical school. ”I liked pure science but then my advisor told me about the benefits of an MD and how flexible the degree is compared to a Ph.D.”
While in medical school, Dr. Henderson received funding for a grant and worked in a neurobiology laboratory and found interest and enthusiasm for that work during his rotation in neurology. That cemented his choice to become a neurologist.
Henderson has been very involved with Brown University, having served as president of the board of the Brown Medical School Alumni Association, president of the Brown Alumni Association, and is now in his second six-year term as a Brown University trustee. In 2021, he received the Brown Medical Alumni Association’s Warren Alpert Medical School’s Senior Alumni Award for Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Henderson met his wife, Vanessa Britto, MD, associate vice president for Campus Life at Brown University, when they were students at Brown. For many years before the pandemic, their love of travel took them to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival and then to Paris every summer. Henderson speaks French and his wife speaks Spanish and Portuguese and for the past 20 years, they’ve also done volunteer medical work about twice a year in West Africa.
Henderson loves to bake and to barbeque. This year, he made a galette des rois which is baked throughout France and New Orleans influenced areas in January to celebrate Epiphany, the day the Three Kings (les rois) visited the infant Jesus. It has a trinket baked into it like the traditional king cake of Mardi Gras.
“I’m proud of helping create additional opportunities for people and also giving them the courage to move forward,” says Dr. Henderson. “I do a lot of talks with younger people and students about having the courage to step out and sometimes be a little different.”
“People should know that as an individual, they can make a difference,” he continues. “And they have to keep trying, keep pushing, keep advocating for their patients and their families for the betterment of society. One person can make a difference. For those families that do decide to donate, their loved ones become heroes; they save lives.”
His research focuses on clinical trials regarding treatments for stroke and cerebral hemorrhage and he is the author of 65 research papers. He is a founding deputy editor of Journal Watch Neurology and is a charter member of the Academy at Harvard Medical School, which comprises the school’s elite medical educators. He also serves as associate medical director for New England Donor Services and for Sharing Hope in South Carolina.