Raw emotions quickly well up inside Dr. Brian H. Williams ’91 as he talks about the evening of July 7, 2016.
The trauma surgeon was the physician in charge at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas that night when dispatchers alerted medical personnel that several injured police officers were being transported from a Black Lives Matter protest nearby.
“I immediately came down to the trauma hall and I arrived as the first officer was rolling in,” he recalls.
Over the next six hours, Williams and his surgery team would try to save the lives of seven downed officers. Three of those treated at Parkland would not survive their gunshot wounds. Two other officers died at another Dallas hospital.
“I think I have the best job in the world,” Williams admits. “But since that night, walking through the hospital and the trauma center is different. For me there’s a heaviness that comes with being here. I’m hoping that, at some point, the joy of this job will come back for me.”
As he chokes back tears, Williams recalls accompanying the bodies of the slain officers to the waiting medical examiner van at 3 a.m. the next morning. Many conflicting emotions were churning inside his heart and head at that moment.
As an African American male, Williams is familiar with the fear and distrust that people of color can feel when interacting with law enforcement personnel.
He also is well aware of the recent spate of officer-involved shootings that took the lives of black men throughout the nation.
At the same time, Williams admits that violence against police officers goes against everything he learned as an Air Force Academy cadet and an Air Force officer.
Four days after the Dallas tragedy, Williams would participate in a Parkland Memorial Hospital press conference to answer media questions related to the medical care provided police officers following the unprovoked attack.
With the cameras rolling, Williams would instead open up about the frustration he feels as a black man and as an American who is fed up with the current state of race relations throughout the nation. The unscripted comments would propel him to national media prominence.
Today, Williams is trying to make sense of his rise as unwitting spokesperson about escalating racial conflict and violence against law enforcement personnel.
He credits his time as a USAFA cadet with providing him the tools to navigate the challenges that come with unexpected notoriety. And he’s counting on the core values he learned at the Academy to carry him through whatever the future holds.
“What my time at the Academy has allowed me to do, I feel, is to truly see all sides of the issue,” he says. “And be able to articulate how I feel about them.”
“My father was career Air Force,” Williams says. “We lived on Air Force bases around the world, so my exposure to the Air Force was basically from day one.”
Growing up as a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat,” Williams says he always knew that he would attend a service academy when he grew up. He applied to all of the academies as high school graduation approached.
“In the end, it made sense to go to the Air Force Academy,” he notes. “I was interested in airplanes, and I knew the culture of the Air Force. So when I got my acceptance to the Academy, it was a pretty easy decision.”
As a Doolie, he would be a member of the Cadet Squadron 24 Phantoms. As an upperclassman, he was in Cadet Squadron Viking 9. He majored in aeronautical engineering, with the goal of becoming a pilot.
“There are a lot of great memories from the Academy, and there are a lot of painful memories from the Academy. But the overall experience, I think, was unparalleled,” he says. “Once you’ve climbed that mountain and completed that training, you realize there are very few challenges that you cannot overcome if you put your mind to it. That self-confidence has been critical for pretty much all aspects of my life.”
After graduation, Williams headed to Williams Air Force Base for pilot training but did not finish the course. He would instead become a flight test engineer, and then later transitioned into special projects for the Air Force.
We should all come together to find a better way to exist together. We’re all in this together.Dr. Brian H. Williams ’91
After six years on active duty, Williams decided to transition out of the Air Force and pursue a medical career.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he admits. “Everything good that had come out of my life, both professionally and personally, had come from my association with the Air Force. It’s not that I was unhappy … it was that time of my life when I was thinking about what I wanted to do and spark my own personal growth.”
He attended medical school at University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa, Florida, and graduated in 2001. It was during his clinical rotation at medical school that Williams found his future calling — trauma surgery.
“During my surgery rotation, which was two months back then, there was a block where you did trauma surgery,” he recalls. “Literally, on the second day of my rotation, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I loved the adrenaline, and I loved taking care of the sickest patients in the hospital. Plus there was quick decision making involved. All those things just seemed to appeal to me.”
In 2008, he completed his residency in general surgery at Brigham & Women's Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.
Williams then would accept a fellowship in trauma surgery and critical care medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, a teaching hospital for Emory University School of Medicine.
In 2010, Williams moved to Dallas to begin his current position. He’s an associate professor of surgery at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and a surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital doing trauma, critical care and emergency surgery.
The bulk of Williams’ current position centers around teaching and mentoring medical students and residents.
“This is a teaching institution. That’s one of the things that drew me here,” he says. “I wanted to teach medical students and residents, and also teach fellows. That’s a huge part of what I do … and it’s very gratifying.”
Five times each month, however, Williams also pulls 24-hour shifts inside Parkland’s trauma center.
“Being on call … that is the favorite part of my job,” he explains. “That may seem absolutely crazy to people who don’t do this – why would you want to be in the hospital 24 hours doing this?”
Williams says the variety of surgery cases he deals with during any given shift can be challenging and very rewarding, but heartbreaking, too.
“During the time I’m here, I do a mix of general surgery cases — gallbladders, hernias. I maybe put in some ports for chemotherapy. But I also take whatever comes through the ED [emergency department] at that time, whether it’s a bad motor vehicle collision, a gun shot, stabbings, as well as emergency surgery,” he explains. “I deal with a lot of death and suffering. You deal with patients and families at some of the worst moments in their lives.”
July 7, 2016
Williams wasn’t scheduled to be on duty the night of the Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. But a surgeon in his group had a previous commitment and asked Williams to substitute for him.
“I knew the protest was going on, and I assumed we’d get something,” he recalls. “I assumed there would be some kind of altercation down there — somebody getting into a fist fight. That’s what I expected. What happened was totally unexpected.”
At around 9 p.m., word came that several officers had been shot and they were being transported to Parkland. Williams and his team had dealt with multiple gunshot victims before, but this tragedy carried particular weight because officers were gunned down while patrolling a peaceful protest.
Despite the chaos of the moment, Williams said the entire trauma center team worked together to save lives.
“Everyone in the trauma center knows their role,” he explains. “Immediately your training kicks in … and you go into action. I think any military professional can appreciate that.”
The team was unable to save three officers in their care. It’s a fact that haunts Williams even still.
“That’s still something I deal with each day — the loss of these officers and what their families are going through. I’m still going through my own grieving process,” he says. “I’m confident I will get through this at some point, but right now it’s a struggle.”
Black & White
Williams knows he’s fortunate to be a black man in the 21st Century. He admits that he hasn’t had to deal with racism as much as his parents did, and his parents had it easier than his grandparents.
“’So what do I have to really complain about?’ is what I told myself. The reality is that racism still exists.”
Williams rattles off several examples of law enforcement encounters he’s experienced during his life that have helped build fear and distrust within him.
“I had an experience where I was spread-eagle with my hands on the hood of my car after being pulled over by a police officer for a traffic violation,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Does everybody get treated like this or is it just because I’m a black male?’”
As an Air Force officer, Williams recalls being pulled over for a traffic violation and “fearing for my physical safety” during the encounter.
Five years ago, Williams was in his Dallas garage waiting for a ride to the airport when officers arrived to question him.
“Someone had called and reported a black man in a garage who looked suspicious,” he recalls. “Yes, they were doing their job. But as they approached me it was immediate, it was visceral and it was uncontrollable.”
Williams clarifies that he’s never been physically or verbally abused by law enforcement personnel, but he understands the fear and distrust that many people of color feel when confronted by authorities.
“I’m not speaking for all black men – I’m speaking from my own experience,” he says. “But I’m certain many would echo what I’ve said. The psychological impact of that over time cannot be ignored. Should it rise to the level of retaliatory violence? No. But you can’t ignore where the roots of that can come from.”
All of those feelings flooded back when Williams heard about the officer-involved shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana (July 5) and Philando Castile in Minnesota (July 6). Williams still was geographically separated from the growing racial tension much of the nation was experiencing, but that all changed July 7 when the societal rift led to the deaths of police officers in Dallas.
Time to talk
Williams didn’t intend to say much at the July 11 press conference inside Parkland Memorial. But as hospital and law enforcement officials answered media questions, the trauma surgeon suddenly felt compelled to speak up about the inner struggle he’d been dealing with of late.
“I’d kept quiet all this time because I have a professional degree, I have a good job, I can provide for my family,” he says. “But still, over time, this eats at you.”
Williams had voiced his frustrations about racial disharmony to friends and colleagues, but had never said anything to a larger audience.
“I’m a pretty private person, so discussing those things just wasn’t something I would do,” he says. “I opened my mouth to say one thing, and it just all came out.”
Over the course of several minutes, Williams talked about the need for America to have open and honest discussions about race relations and racism. He mentioned that, far too often, black men died in police custody and they were “quickly forgotten or defamed.”
He talked about his previous experiences with law enforcement and indicated that many people of color are justified in their fear and distrust of authorities.
“I fit that demographic, so I get it,” he told the media.
Williams also told onlookers that had done his best to counteract the negative vibe he felt around police officers by picking up the tab for officers eating at local restaurants. He made sure to model that behavior in front of his 5-year-old daughter. “So, when she grows up, she may not have the same fear or distrust that I do.”
He made sure to emphasize, however, that nothing justified the way police were recently being targeted by certain individuals and groups.
“This killing … it has to stop,” he told the media.
Immediately following his remarks, Williams found himself in the national media spotlight. He has been interviewed by CNN and numerous other media outlets, and he has appeared live on the Don Lemon show. He went to New York City a few days after the shootings to participate in a panel discussion called “Black, White and Blue: America 2016,” a discussion on law enforcement and race relations in America. Williams also was invited by President Barack Obama to a Washington, D.C. town hall event focused on race relations.
“I am a little bit unnerved and uncomfortable by the attention that is being paid to me,” he admits. “It’s just not something that I’m prepared for, not something I’ve ever sought out, and I’m just not used to it.”
Williams is pleased, nonetheless, that his comments have helped spark civil discussion about race throughout the U.S.
“We can have differences of opinion, but we need to talk about them without judgment, without fear, and without being defensive,” he says. “We need to come to some understanding about how the other person lives.”
Williams has received hundreds of letters and emails since the Dallas tragedy. Most of the correspondence has been positive and supportive.
Williams also has talked with several people in law enforcement since then, and a few have indicated that his comments changed how they conduct themselves as officers.
“I’m starting to get this sense that what I said meant a lot to a lot of people. A lot of people, from a lot of different walks of life, are thinking differently now,” Williams said. “Maybe my words are going to have some long-term impact.”
The path ahead
As emotionally difficult as the tragedy was, Williams is convinced that he was meant to be on duty the night of the Dallas shootings. As the hospital’s only African American trauma surgeon, only he could have sparked the conversation that has ensued.
“Right now I feel an obligation to be a part of that discussion,” he says. “And I recognize that, at least for now, my voice is having some impact. This has awakened a really dormant spirit within me. It’s a part of myself that I had boxed off, put away and ignored for a really long time.”
Williams readily admits that he doesn’t hold the answers for solving our nation’s racial tensions. But he’s willing to remain a part of the conversations in the days ahead.
“We should all come together to find a better way to exist together. We’re all in this together,” he says. “We don’t have to agree … we don’t have to hold hands and hug afterwards. But at least people can say ‘I understand where you’re coming from.’ We all have a right to live our lives peacefully, without fear of bigotry, discrimination or physical violence.”