One Year From International Fame To Unemployment (Conclusion)

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Anonymity. Sudden fame. Unemployment. All in one unprecedented year. Thank you for returning for the conclusion of this story.

Part II ended with the press conference held a few days after the Dallas shooting. The personal thoughts and feelings I shared about police interactions, violence, and racism catapulted me into the national spotlight – and I was unprepared for the media response. A year later, after news spread of my decision to resign, I faced a similar whirlwind of questions about my innermost thoughts and feelings – only this time from colleagues and friends.

So what was I thinking when I resigned? Actually, based on your feedback, many of you really just want to know “what am I planning to do now?” We’ll get there. For now let’s pick up from where I was leaving the press conference – oblivious to the tsunami of media requests about to hit.

What was clear to me was the intense mix of grief, frustration, and emotion I felt while processing the events that had unfolded just days before. In fact, I was processing experiences that had been unfolding in front of me my entire life.

I am grateful the university where I was on faculty and the hospital where I practiced had the foresight to assign representatives from their respective media relations departments to help me tread water. Because within 24 hours I did interviews for local, national, and international news outlets including CNN, Fox, CBS, ABC, BBC, NY Times, Associated Press, Dallas Morning News, and more.

A week later I met President Obama (but missed my photo op – yeah, I know). Within a month I had a conference call with the Surgeon General.

And later that summer I began accepting lecture invitations to share my experiences and perspectives with audiences from around the country at medical centers, industry conferences, schools, universities, churches and more. And the requests never stopped. So recently I humbly relented and added ‘Public Speaker’ to my job title. Being on call that tragic night had officially changed the trajectory of my life.

Despite these varied audiences, my topic was always the same – the intersection of race, violence, and medicine. And every trip my singular focus was “what lesson can I teach the attendees?”

What I did not anticipate were the lessons I would learn along the way.

Like the students in St. Louis, Missouri who taught me that children a few years older than my daughter are mature beyond their years and worry their lives may prematurely end in violence. Would you want your children grappling with those fears as you send them off to school every day?

 Sumner High School Students St. Louis, MO (November 2016)

Sumner High School Students St. Louis, MO (November 2016)

Or from the Chiefs of Police gathered in Bend, Oregon who taught me how some law enforcement agencies are trying to improve the historically poor relations with black Americans. How do you build trust between two groups wrestling with generations of racial animus?

 Jeff Groth, Chief of Police, Sherwood Police Department Oregon Association Chiefs of Police Annual Conference Bend, OR (April 2017)

Jeff Groth, Chief of Police, Sherwood Police Department Oregon Association Chiefs of Police Annual Conference Bend, OR (April 2017)

And from the youth theater company in Dallas, Texas who taught me that our teenagers deserve way more credit for their social consciousness. What would it be like if we “adults” stepped aside and let our youth lead the way on racial reconciliation?

  Cry Havoc Theater Company  Encore Production of “Shots Fired” Dallas, TX (July 2017)

Cry Havoc Theater Company Encore Production of “Shots Fired” Dallas, TX (July 2017)

As the year unfolded, it became clear I could not return to business as usual and pretend none of this mattered. Actually it was clear long before – and for a host of reasons independent of the shooting. I just chose to ignore the obvious until I couldn’t anymore. I had to resign. Have you ever felt you had to make a dramatic change, but found every reason not to do it?

I finally made that change; one that seems unfathomable to many. But it was a change made with significant forethought, input from my mentors, and the support of my wife. And I did not quit medicine. I have merely chosen a different path. It is the only way I can actualize a career that combines my passion for medicine, experiences as a trauma surgeon, and dedication to social equity. Exactly where this leads is still to be determined, but I am laying the foundation for that right now. Although unemployed, I am not idle. And I have no angst about the unknown.

But there was a time a few months ago when that wasn’t so. It was the time I walked into that police conference in Bend, Oregon. Before me was a roomful of 150 command level police officers – each woman and man had decades of law enforcement experience. All I saw was an intimidating sea of white faces awaiting my keynote lecture – a lecture where police use of force was the central theme. And I had no idea how this message would be received.

Next time I’ll share what they taught me.

Brian H. Williams, MD