When trauma surgeon Brian Williams first saw the Cook County Medical Examiner’s map of coronavirus deaths, a prickle crept up the back of his neck. He felt he had seen it before. Sitting in his office at the University of Chicago Medical Center in Hyde Park, he loaded The Chicago Tribune’s map of homicides in the city. Looking at them side by side, he saw that they were almost identical — and both showed the highest concentration of deaths in Chicago’s majority black neighborhoods.
For days, Williams, who usually treats shooting victims as co-director of the hospital’s surgical ICU, had been spending about half his time in the COVID unit, checking patients’ lab results and consulting with nurses about treatment options. As he walked the hallway, looking through the glass walls at people on ventilators, one thing stood out to him: Almost every patient was black.
“Over and over and over again, I am operating on young black men who are victims of gun violence,” he told The Trace. “And now I’m in an ICU looking at just a line of black Americans who are fighting for their lives from coronavirus.”
Williams moved to Chicago last year, part of a personal mission to find ways to reduce gun violence and other maladies that disproportionately affect black communities.
When, about two decades ago, he was first assigned to a trauma unit during his clinical rotation in Tampa, Florida, Williams was drawn to the pace and the high stakes. At the time, he felt like repairing broken bodies — not repairing society’s inequities — was his calling. That changed in 2016, when Williams found himself at the center of a national tragedy: The killing of five Dallas police officers during a march against police violence. The protest had been organized to draw attention to the police killings of Philando Castile, in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But as crowds gathered, a sniper opened fire, ambushing a group of law enforcement officers.
A black man who has been racially profiled by police himself, Williams had been outraged over the deaths of Castile and Sterling. But he was also devastated when he saw seven of the wounded police officers in his emergency room. He worked desperately to save them, but three died. (Two more died at a different hospital.)
Williams said his wife often remarks upon his stoicism. But on that day he found himself on the floor, sobbing. Days later, when the hospital asked him to participate in a press conference, he told his wife he wanted no part of it, he was too emotionally drained. But she said it was his duty to go. “Even if you don’t speak, people need to see that there was a black trauma surgeon in charge that night trying to save the white police officers,” he recalled her saying. He went reluctantly, planning to be quiet, or only answer technical questions.
He surprised himself when he began speaking in a quavering voice, expressing his own mixed feelings about law enforcement.
“I fit that demographic of individuals” most likely to be shot by police officers, he said. “But I abhor what has been done to these officers, and I grieve with their families.”
“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.”
Then Williams addressed the police: “I support you,” he said. “I will defend you. I will care for you. That doesn’t mean I do not fear you.”
His message, and his heartfelt delivery, thrust him into the national spotlight. In the days that followed, Williams appeared on CNN and strangers stopped him on the street to thank him for speaking up. In one interview he said he didn’t know what he was going to do to accommodate his desire to fight for equity. But he knew he had to do something.
A year later, the mayor of Dallas appointed Williams as the chair of the Citizens Police Review Board, which provides oversight to the Police Department. Williams, who did the job part-time while continuing to work as a trauma surgeon, fought to give the board more power to discipline police officers and to make its findings public. He achieved many of his goals, but did not stay to see them implemented. Last summer, he became a trauma surgeon and a professor at the University of Chicago. It was a good match for Williams’s interests and expertise. In the American city that often logs the highest number of annual homicides, racial inequality and strained police relations are a bitter hallmark.
In his first months in Chicago, Williams treated multiple gunshot victims a day — almost all black and brown people. He remembers walking a middle-aged black mother into a small, windowless conference room to break the news of her son’s death from multiple gunshot wounds. “I just need one more day,” Williams recalled the woman saying. “Tomorrow he was going to live with a relative in a safer neighborhood.” Williams was devastated, but the pain has kept him going. “I don’t ever want to stop feeling that sorrow. It’s how I know my humanity is still burning brightly.”
Now that the coronavirus has swept across the country, the racial disparities in who gets it, and who gets sickest have become alarmingly clear. In Cook County, African-Americans account not quite a third of the population, but about 40 percent of virus-related fatalities. There are multiple reasons why black Americans appear to be more susceptible to the virus than their white counterparts; fewer hold jobs that they can do from home and many lack access to healthcare.
Williams says he’s not sure what his role will be in fixing the inequities he sees in housing, education, income, and so many other areas, but he is more determined than ever to play one. He is hopeful that the racial imbalance so blatant in the COVID crisis will finally wake up community leaders to not just gun violence, but all the underlying factors that cause it.
He paused for a long time, trying to subdue the emotion in his voice before speaking. “I see these patients and they’re already vulnerable because of their experience outside the hospital. And now here they are with this life-threatening disease that we know little about. And we have to protect ourselves from them by being covered head to toe. They cannot advocate for themselves because they are on a ventilator. And their families cannot be in the hospital at their bedside.”
“I just think, what more can I do to change this? There’s a bigger issue here that needs to be addressed.”