A trauma surgeon takes on the public health crisis of racism

Trauma surgeon Brian Williams, MD

Ask Brian Williams, MD, to identify his defining moment as a trauma surgeon, and, without skipping a beat, he will tell you about what happened in Texas on July 7, 2016.

That night, during a protest against police shootings, a man ambushed and shot at a group of police officers, killing five and injuring nine others. Seven of the wounded officers were transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Williams was the attending on call that night and the only Black trauma surgeon on a team of 12.

“At the time of the crisis, I wasn’t giving any thought to the external social political climate,” Williams said. “It was a medical crisis, and I’m a trauma surgeon. This is my job.”

After working through the night to save the officers’ lives, Williams had to break the news to three families that their loved ones did not survive.

“After talking to the families, I went to a back room and fell to the ground and started bawling,” he recalled. “I do not cry. I had not cried in so long before that, but that night I was crying. It was a perceptible shift in me personally and professionally.”

That night and its aftermath led Williams to put down his scalpel for two years to work on police-community relations in Dallas and catapulted him to prominence as a national thought leader on public health and racism. He worked full time as the medical director of a community health institute to address healthcare disparities within Dallas County, and the mayor appointed him chair of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Board.

Today he continues his work as a trauma surgeon at the University of Chicago Medicine — and his work to tackle the toll gun violence and now COVID-19 are taking on the Black community. This spring, he’s teaching a course in the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy related to violence and communities of color.

“When public policy becomes weaponized,” he said, “people suffer. Policy can affect the lives of millions of people per year. What if I could teach what I know to a bunch of public policy grad students with no end goal other than to say here’s my experience, you’re all smart folks going into public policy — you’re looking at this outside of a healthcare lens and can help find some really creative solutions.”

While that tragic and traumatic moment in Dallas looms large for him as a trauma surgeon, Williams is further defined and motivated by the racism he has experienced his whole life, in and out of the workplace.

Racial slurs hurled at him from cars. People asking him outside of a restaurant to park their cars or mistaking him for janitorial staff in the hospital. He and his wife even learned that adopting a baby of color was less expensive than adopting a child who is white.

One day as Williams waited for a car to the airport outside of his apartment in Dallas, someone called the police on a “suspicious Black male.” Officers approached him, asking for identification to prove his residence. His wife, who is white and was not yet aware of the rampant racism that would later come to light in the media, was surprised he complied. She asked him why he did so.

He replied simply, “I didn’t want to get shot.”

From engineering to medicine

 Brian Williams, MD, studied aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy.
Brian Williams, MD, studied aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy.

Williams, an Air Force brat, moved around every few years as a child and eventually became an aeronautical engineer after attending the Air Force Academy as the first person in his family to go to college.

“While on active duty, I got this bug to go into medicine,” Williams said. “My social circle was all nurses and doctors. I was exposed to these folks talking about their day-to-day all the time, and I thought their jobs sounded great.”

At 28, he started medical school at the University of South Florida, where he did rotations in trauma surgery and surgical critical care. On the second day of his trauma rotation, Williams said, he knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life.

“The pace of the specialty, patients coming in the door near death and the team bringing them back — trauma surgeons seemed like my kind of people,” Williams said. “I enjoyed operating and the fast pace of the ICU, including the adrenaline.”

Williams did his internship and residency in Boston at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Boston is also where he met his wife, Kathianne Sellers Williams.

“One thing about Brian is that he’s very humble,” Kathianne said. “I remember him giving grand rounds as a surgical resident. A lot of the doctors spoke about how they became doctors because of other people in their families who were also doctors. Brian talked about how his father and grandfather were in the military and traced his roots back to the land his family was enslaved on. He’s the opposite of entitled, and I can tell when he’s working on young Black patients, he sees a lot of himself in them.”

She said that for much of their life together, her husband has been guarded, hiding potential vulnerabilities from others to build trust and respect.

Press conference in Dallas

Brian Williams, MD, at a memorial that was created after the Dallas shootings.
Brian Williams, MD, at a memorial that was created after the Dallas shootings.

The Monday following the police shootings in Dallas, Williams was called upon to participate in a press conference as the surgeon on call.

“I had no desire to relive what happened in front of cameras,” he said, “but my wife told me I had to go.”

I want the officers to see me, a Black man, and understand that I support you, I will defend you and I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you.

Kathianne said that before the press conference, her husband was an especially private person who turned down any kind of public attention. He didn’t want to leave any room for people’s outside perceptions to hinder his progress, so he had no social media presence and even asked her not to post photos of him on her own pages. But something changed in him the night of the press conference.

“My wife said, ‘The country needs to see there was a Black surgeon there that night trying to save those white officers. Just show up and sit there,’” Williams said. “That’s a statement on our society. Just to be seen as a Black man in that situation made a statement.

“I went and was listening to what people were saying. I felt like — this is not what this is about. I felt there was too much being left unsaid. I don’t remember how, but I came to speak. It was unrehearsed, unscripted, the words just came out. I thought to myself, this has to be said right now or it will never happen:

“I want the officers to see me, a Black man, and understand that I support you, I will defend you and I will care for you,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you.”

His powerful words went viral.

“I still have a way to go in terms of recovering and understanding what that night meant,” Williams said. “I learned that any one of us can make a difference, even if we don’t think we can, for good or bad.”

When he announced in 2019 that he was moving to Chicago, the Dallas Morning News wrote that Williams left “an indelible mark on police and community relations in Dallas.”

Back in the trauma bay

During Williams’s career, he crossed paths with several members of the team who opened UChicago Medicine’s Level 1 adult trauma center in 2018. While in medical school, he worked with Jeffrey Matthews, MD, Chair of the Department of Surgery at UChicago Medicine. As a resident in Boston, he worked with Selwyn Rogers Jr., MD, MPH, Founding Director of the trauma center. And during a fellowship at Emory University’s Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, he worked with Kenneth Wilson, MD, Professor of Surgery.

“Since I’ve known Brian, he’s gone straight up to being a thought leader,” Wilson said. “The social determinants of trauma and structural racism are clearly not something you learn about in a fellowship when you’re putting an artery back together. He’s passionate about his trauma patients, especially in communities of color.”

Williams was attracted to the job in Chicago by the opportunities to work on a team with four Black trauma surgeons — rare in the field — and to address healthcare disparities and gun violence.

“I was at a point in my career looking at my professional progress and realizing everything that’s happened prepared me for a moment like this,” he said. “It’s not a job, it’s a mission. It’s a life’s purpose.”

It’s not a job, it’s a mission. It’s a life’s purpose.

The victims of gun violence injuries he sees as a trauma surgeon at UChicago Medicine are overwhelmingly Black. He can’t remember the last time he told someone who was not African American about the death of their child due to gun violence.

“With the volume of gun violence we’re experiencing, there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “You put me in the trauma center, and I can treat patients, teach residents, do research and easily finish my career that way, but I want to put myself out of a job.

“I’m excited to be at a university with so many resources available that may not be available to other trauma centers. We have the business school, the law school and really smart people looking at the same issues of inequality on the South Side. I can call them up for coffee. The possibility to bring all this together for sustainable change that will uplift the community and have transgenerational impact is very exciting. I really believe in what’s happening here. It’s a historic opportunity. There is no place else on the planet that exists like this for a trauma center. We can solve these problems. It’s a matter of looking at the root causes instead of just treating the wounds.”

Focus on social justice

Williams said he hopes to make a difference on the South Side, starting with talking to a lot of the individuals and groups already working to fight racism.

“The whole goal is to educate, hold a mirror up to ourselves. It’s who we are but it doesn’t have to define us. We can take our shared history of racial injustice and create a more just society,” he said.

He recently oversaw a team of graduate students who completed a capstone project regarding gun violence. “Looking at gun violence through different lenses, on a smaller scale, I’m hoping with these students we can tackle one problem and then figure out how to scale the solution,” he said. “But it starts with an idea on a small scale that we can implement, revise, evaluate. My job is not to give them the answers, but to give them my experience and step out of the way and let smart people do their jobs.”

Williams is an inspiration to the residents he mentors, said fellow trauma surgeon Kenneth Wilson.

“He’s like the Pied Piper for people in this program who want to do social outreach stuff,” Wilson said. “When he takes the podium and starts talking, he’s mesmerizing.”

Last summer, Williams moderated Facebook Live panels with UChicago Medicine’s House Staff Diversity Committee to help educate communities of color about the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee, made up residents and fellows, provides a forum to learn about advocacy, self-awareness, social justice and intercultural understanding.

“It’s important for members of our community to get important information from messengers who look like them, in addition to seeing how they’re working on fighting this pandemic day to day,” Williams said.

On a personal level, the pandemic was challenging for Williams and his family. Working in trauma in 2020 came with a lot of unknowns and the stark possibility that he could contract COVID-19 and die. But the past year also has better illuminated how the effects of racism in a pandemic have left communities of color to die at higher rates and be vaccinated at lower rates than the general population.

“Despite all the deaths, economic downturn, problems with our schools — I recognize within all of it that there’s opportunity to somehow be a positive contributor,” Williams said.

“Moving forward, I’m thinking about what I can do to contribute to society and uplift these communities that are suffering. I believe if we do that, everyone will benefit.”

Beyond the ED

Speaker, writer, thought leader: Brian Williams, MD, hosts the podcast Race, Violence and Medicine. His op-eds have appeared in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune and other publications.

Working on: Getting his memoir published this year.

High profile: Named one of Medscape’s Top 20 Black Physician Social Media Influencers. Received a 2020 Black Leaders Worth Watching award from Profiles in Diversity Journal.

Family life: Williams and his wife, Kathianne, have been married 16 years and have a 10-year-old daughter, Abeni.

Music man: Though his wife says he’s not allowed to listen to heavy metal in the house, Williams plays in a band with fellow UChicago Medicine surgeons, though the musicians are on hiatus due to the pandemic.

And a bibliophile: Mostly nonfiction and science fiction. “I’m a science fiction geek,” Williams says. “I fly my science fiction flag high.”

A great laugh: “He’s an unexpected person — pensive and serious, but he has a playful side,’’ his wife says. “I love his laugh.”

Brian Williams, MD

Brian Williams, MD

Brian H. Williams, MD, FACS, is a highly skilled surgeon specializing in trauma surgery, acute care surgery and surgical critical care. Dr. Williams’ expertise allows him to quickly evaluate complex surgical emergencies and life-threatening traumatic injuries to provide the best treatment option for each patient in the operating room and the surgical intensive care unit.