Thursday, February 22, 2024 Feb 22, 2024
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A Dallas ER Doc Confronts Racism

After the downtown shooter sent wounded cops to his hospital, Dr. Brian Williams wound up at the center of a national conversation.
By Jamie Thompson |
Jeremiah Stanley

The surgeon’s white coat had always provided him a certain amount of protection, insulation from things that happened to other black men.

But Dr. Brian Williams, a trauma surgeon at Parkland hospital, couldn’t wear the coat everywhere. So he had devised a system of secondary markers, hopeful talismans in case police pulled him over. He bought a specialty license plate cover, signaling he was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He listed his status as a military veteran on his driver’s license. He wore his hospital badge around his neck, whether he was driving to work or not.

EMERGENCY: At a press conference after the shootings, Williams spoke about his own experience as a black man. Then CNN flew him to New York to attend a town hall meeting on race.
EMERGENCY: At a press conference after the shootings, Williams spoke about his own experience as a black man. Then CNN flew him to New York to attend a town hall meeting on race.                             Jeremiah Stanley

Williams, 47, was especially aware of those indicators when he drove his silver Honda to the hospital that Thursday afternoon in July. Navigating the streets of Dallas, his mind churned with images of two recent police shootings—of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Both videos had affirmed his fears that any encounter with police could turn deadly.

For several hours at work, Williams handled typical evening arrivals: a car crash, a gallbladder surgery, an acute appendicitis. Then, at around 9 pm, his pager buzzed: Multiple gunshot victims.

Williams hurried into the trauma bay as nurses rolled in a severely wounded Dallas police officer, the first of several. He tossed aside his white coat and snapped on rubber gloves, stepping into another bloody episode in the nation’s racial history, and a turning point in his own.

In downtown Dallas, an armed man had taken aim at police officers—specifically white officers—at an otherwise peaceful rally where hundreds protested police shootings of unarmed black men. Alerted that wounded officers were on the way, Parkland declared a Code Yellow, Level 3, summoning extra staff, checking units of blood, putting teams on standby to carry stretchers. Hospital police retrieved AR-15 rifles and stood guard.

In his blue scrubs, Williams rushed into Trauma Room 1 just as the first officer arrived with devastating gunshot wounds. More than a dozen nurses and residents were in the room, slipping on a blood pressure cuff, inserting an IV. Machines beeped loudly as Williams worked. He sensed a heightened intensity among his team. Police officers and firefighters were in and out of the trauma center regularly; many were friends with the hospital staff. Williams knew what his team was thinking: He’s one of ours.

After several minutes, he looked up. “Can anyone think of anything else we can try?” He scanned his team, their eyes peering at him over masks. No one could.

“We can’t do anything more,” he said. He peeled off his gloves and looked at a clock on the wall, calling out the officer’s time of death, around 9:30.

Williams rushed across the trauma department to Room 8. A second officer had arrived in the back of a shot-up police car, driven by a young female officer who had been hit in the arm. Williams stepped through a group of residents and began working on the officer. His injuries were nearly identical to the first. Same frantic attempts, same outcome. After a couple of minutes, Williams again pulled off his gloves and called out time of death.

A third officer had arrived, and Williams rushed to his room. At first this officer appeared less critical. He was conscious. Williams looked him in the eye, and the men spoke.

Williams evaluated the officer and could tell he was deteriorating rapidly and needed immediate surgery. He placed the officer under another surgeon’s care, and a team rushed the officer upstairs to an operating room.

Stepping into a hallway, Williams saw that the trauma unit had filled with dozens of officers in blue uniforms. Some stood guard, holding rifles. Others talked quietly in small groups, waiting for word.

Williams went to work on other patients. After a few minutes, he rode the elevator upstairs to check on the third officer. He went into an operating room, watching as the other surgeon worked.

Then Williams walked to a small room filled with relatives of one of the officers. He pulled open a wooden door, stepped inside, and pulled up a chair beside the family members.

“We did everything we possibly could,” he said.

He asked the family if they wanted details. Some families did, others didn’t. This family wanted to know everything. Williams walked them through the procedures his team had tried.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said. “If you have any questions, I am always available to you.”

He rose and left the room. As the door shut behind him, he heard their piercing, mournful wails.

Williams felt guilty, heavy with doubt. Did I miss anything? Did I do everything I could?

Several other officers who had been less critically wounded awaited treatment in the trauma unit, but Williams couldn’t go back yet. He found a quiet hallway and leaned against a wall. He sunk to the ground, put his head in his hands, and wept.

Scenes of his own interactions with police flashed through his mind. They mingled in a kaleidoscopic swirl with the deaths of Castile and Sterling and now of the police officers in his care. He grieved for the officers. Yet he also understood the roots of the gunman’s anger.

Williams grew up on military bases across the world—from Albuquerque to Okinawa to Honolulu—as his father served in the Air Force. The bases were diverse and integrated; his parents’ friends were a mix of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. His parents modeled inclusion, and Williams doesn’t remember any particular awareness of race among his friends early on.

But there were incidents. When he was about 5 years old, he approached a white child on a playground. An adult ushered the boy away. Williams was confused, and his mother tried to explain: It might be because you’re black.

When Williams was about 9 years old, he tried to join a pickup baseball game at a neighborhood park. We’re not letting any niggers on the team today, one boy said.

It was a gradual revelation that some people might perceive and treat him differently because he was black.

“There comes a point in your life when you realize being a black man means something,” Williams says. “At first you’re not completely sure whether it’s good or bad. But you are aware that’s how you’re viewed in society.”

As a teen, he excelled in school and worked part-time jobs delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. For college, he earned a spot at the prestigious Air Force Academy. He studied aeronautical engineering and graduated with military honors in 1991. It was during his senior year that the Rodney King video circulated around the world, showing Los Angeles police brutally beating King and raising questions about police treatment of minorities. Williams remembered watching the video with horror.

“People can say what they want about Rodney King and his past, but as a black man watching that, it has an effect on you,” he says. The video echoed what he had learned growing up, from his parents, from the stories of friends and relatives: be extremely careful when interacting with police.

OFFICER, GENTLEMAN: Williams graduated from the Air Force Academy with military honors.
OFFICER, GENTLEMAN: Williams graduated from the Air Force Academy with military honors.           Courtesy of Williams

After college, he went to work as an aeronautical engineer for the Air Force for six years. It was during this time, in his 20s, that he had the first of several encounters with police. Williams was driving at night as he traveled to visit his sister. He was probably speeding, he says. Blue lights flashed, and he pulled over on a dark road. He waited for what felt like an eternity. Then another police car arrived as backup. The officers approached his car. Williams made sure his hands were visible on the steering wheel, firmly positioned at 10 and 2 o’clock. After issuing a ticket, the officers sent him on his way.

“I was so afraid,” Williams says. “When other people get pulled over, they’re probably thinking, ‘Will I get a ticket or a warning?’ I’m wondering if I am going to be physically harmed. If I just get a ticket, I’m thrilled.”

A while later, police pulled him over for another infraction. In civilian clothes, he kept his hands on the wheel, no sudden movements. The officer asked him to step out of the car. Then he instructed Williams to stand spread-eagle and place his hands on the hood while he ran his driver’s license.

The traffic stops came to nothing but left him wondering: Would they have done the same to a white man?

He told himself that he had nothing to complain about. His life experience was far better than that of his father and grandfather. But each incident took a toll.

“Things like that just slowly eat away at your humanity,” Williams says. “You realize that no matter what you do—your accomplishments, your accolades, your titles—that you can easily be dehumanized based on the color of your skin.”

In his mid-20s, Williams became interested in medicine, after socializing with friends in the field. He enrolled at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, where he was among a handful of black students. He remembers about eight in a class of roughly 100. Few black doctors or professors were on staff. “I did not sit around thinking, ‘I’m a black male in medical school, and everyone is watching me.’ But I was aware of the fact that there were very few people who looked like me that I could model myself after.”

Two or three times, when he entered hospital rooms with other trainees, patients told the group that they did not want Williams involved in their treatment. Patients never explicitly said it was because he was black. But as the only minority in the group, it seemed the obvious reason.

“It was insulting. It was humiliating, because it was so public. I would just try to maintain some dignity,” he says. He left the room, believing the patients’ wishes should prevail. Once, a white female resident spoke up: “Absolutely not. He is a student, this is a teaching hospital, and he gets to stay.”

After graduating from USF, Williams became a general surgery resident at Harvard Medical School. While there, peers voted him the chief resident who “best exemplifies excellence, uncompromising loyalty, and conscientious teaching of junior residents.”

Then Williams went to Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta for his surgery fellowship, working at Grady Memorial Hospital. The hospital treated many black and minority patients. There, Williams lost count of the number of times black patients hugged him, told him they were proud. Many said he was the first black doctor they had been treated by.

“I realized that to them, I symbolized something bigger than myself,” Williams says.

Williams moved to Dallas in 2010 to become an assistant professor of surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He also began working as a trauma surgeon for the Parkland Health & Hospital System. He moved into an apartment in Uptown with his wife, Kathianne.

One day after he arrived in Dallas, Williams stood outside his complex, waiting for a ride to the airport, his luggage on the ground behind him, when a police car pulled up. He noted that the two officers appeared to be approaching strategically from different directions. At first, he didn’t register that they were coming for him.

The officers asked what he was doing there. He lived there, Williams explained. The officers asked for identification, and he carefully pulled out his wallet. After a brief talk, the officers climbed back into the patrol car.

A few days later, Williams described the incident to a friend, who looked up the police report. It showed that someone had called 911 about a “bald black man acting suspiciously” outside the complex.

He didn’t blame the police. “But the fact that I was just standing there, in my own apartment complex, and I evoked that kind of response? It was disappointing.”

He also thought about his visceral reaction to the officers, how scared he had been. His wife was angry and asked why he had shown his license. “I didn’t want to get shot,” he told her.

Williams felt conflicted about the police. He considered them vital protectors, but their presence also made him fearful. He was so troubled by this that he worked to create a different experience for his own young daughter. When they were out at a restaurant and saw police officers, he would pick up their tab. When he took his daughter for ice cream, he would buy for the officers behind them, too. He wanted his daughter to see them as allies, not threats. And he wanted the officers to see him, a black man, as a supporter.

Other than with his wife and a few close friends, he rarely talked about race. He feared alienating his white colleagues and friends, worried he would be marginalized.

But in recent years, as police shootings of unarmed black men filled the news, he began to think about his race more and more. If his handful of encounters with police had impacted him so deeply, what must it feel like to black men who have them more often? Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, had been pulled over by police at least 49 times in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area before he was fatally shot.

This summer, watching the videos of Sterling and Castile filled Williams with a hopelessness that he had never before felt. He thought he knew what would happen next: authorities would release the men’s criminal histories, label them bad guys, then the men would be forgotten. That’s what he was thinking about as he drove to work on July 7, before the wounded police officers began arriving in his trauma bays.

That night, after informing the first dead officer’s family and after composing himself, Williams walked back to the trauma unit to tend to the officers with lesser injuries. He learned that the third severely wounded officer, the one rushed to the operating room with another surgeon, had died. Williams could not remember ever losing three patients in such a short period of time.

He and his team spent the next several hours treating the gunshot and shrapnel wounds of officers and attending to other patients. At about 3 am, dozens of officers in the trauma unit started walking to the ambulance bay. The medical examiners had arrived to take the bodies.

Williams joined the throng. He stepped through a pair of sliding glass doors, out into the night. He watched as officers formed two lines, creating a passageway for the fallen. They stood at parade rest, feet spread, arms folded behind their backs.

Williams hesitated, then stepped forward in his blue scrubs, assuming parade rest as he had done in the Air Force. He looked into the eyes of the officers across the line, searching to see if his presence offended them. He saw only anguish. After a while, a commanding voice boomed through the night: “Attention!”

The officers snapped their feet together as their arms shot to their sides. Williams did the same.

“Present arms!”

The officers raised their arms in salute. Because he was not in uniform, Williams placed his hand over his heart.

Nurses walked by slowly, pushing one stretcher after another, each carrying a black body bag. Relatives of the men walked alongside, their hands resting on the bags.

Motorcycle engines roared to life as bike officers formed a line, leading the motorcade away.

In the days that followed, Williams saw the officers’ faces in his mind. He could recall their features in fine detail.

He felt guilty that he hadn’t been able to save them. While he mourned the death of the officers, though, he also grieved for the deaths of the unarmed black men who had been shot by police, including Castile and Sterling. He did not want people to forget about them, either.

On July 11, the hospital called a press conference to discuss the shooting. Williams wasn’t certain whether he should attend. He was so emotional that he didn’t know if he should join his team at the conference. He called his wife. She was worried, too, afraid he might lose it on national television. They had been together for 15 years, and she had seen her husband cry only once, despite all the difficult cases he’d handled in the trauma department. But Williams had wept several times just since the shootings.

Still, his wife encouraged him to attend, telling him he had a unique perspective. She thought he had been placed on call that night for a reason. Williams had not been scheduled to work and had been filling in for one of his partners.

Later that afternoon, Williams texted his wife.

I will speak from the heart. I will not lose it, he wrote.

Even if you do lose it and the world comes crumbling down, I will stand by you, his wife texted back.

Thank you. I’m heading over now, he wrote.

At 1 pm that afternoon, Williams stepped into a conference room at Parkland and took his seat. He clenched his hands beneath the table, nervous and uncertain about what to say. He listened as his colleagues spoke into about a dozen cameras, some broadcasting live. Then the cameras turned to Williams. The room fell quiet as he audibly inhaled.

He hadn’t planned to speak about America’s racial tensions, nor to inject his own experience into the conversation. But he could be quiet no longer.

“I’m Brian Williams,” he said. “I want to state first and foremost, I stand with the Dallas Police Department. I stand with law enforcement all over this country. This experience has been very personal for me and a turning point in my life.”

Then he told the audience that the recent shootings of unarmed black men had affected him deeply.

“I think the reasons are obvious,” he said into the cameras. “I fit that demographic of individuals. But I abhor what has been done to these officers, and I grieve with their families.”

He continued: “I understand the anger and frustration and distrust of law enforcement. But they are not the problem. The problem is the lack of open discussions about the impact of race relations in this country.”

He told officers how he felt, in plain words: “I support you. I will defend you. And I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you.”

After he spoke, he sat back in his chair. Oh shit, he thought. What have I done? Had he really just said all those things out loud, on national television? He wondered if his bosses at Parkland and UT Southwestern would be angry. What would his white colleagues think? A white trauma surgeon, Dr. Alexander Eastman, sat beside Williams at the press conference. Eastman is also a Dallas police officer who serves on the SWAT team. He was surprised by the things Williams had said. The men were close, worked together, vacationed together with their wives and children. While they had discussed race over the years, Eastman had not understood the depth of his friend’s feelings. He turned toward Williams and wrapped him in a hug.

“I felt like I had let my friend down,” Eastman said later. “It was clear to me that we had a lot more discussing to do.”

In the days that followed, Williams received hundreds of texts, letters, and e-mails from across the country, including a handwritten note from a young girl in his own neighborhood, covered in pink hearts.

“Dear Dr. Williams, Thank you for caring and loveing our police man. You are a super heroe to me. I am proude you’re my naber.”

He made the rounds on national television. CNN flew him to New York to attend a town hall meeting on race. At the airport, strangers stopped Williams and thanked him for speaking out.

Williams told people that he had no grand solutions, but that he believed the first step was to acknowledge that prejudice exists, that it transcends education, wealth, and social status. By now, he was glad he had spoken out.

“This is really a chance,” he says, “for all of us to start talking.”


Jamie Thompson

Jamie Thompson

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