Beyond the Knife 2023

Brian H. Williams, MD, delivers his keynote speech at the 2023 “Beyond the Knife” endowed lecture via videoconferencing.

Brian H. Williams, MD, delivered his keynote speech at the 2023 “Beyond the Knife” endowed lecture via videoconferencing.

Finding Core Solutions for Gun Violence Crisis

By Dirk Hoffman

Published February 10, 2023

Brian H. Williams, MD, a Black, Harvard-trained trauma surgeon, would love to put himself out of a job so he never has to tell another mother their child has died due to gun violence.

“Love and healing go together. To eliminate systemic racism, you have to begin with love. Racism and love are incompatible. ”
Brian H. Williams, MD
Professor of trauma and acute care surgery at University of Chicago Medicine and “Beyond the Knife” 2023 keynote speaker



Difficult Conversations About Racism and Health Care

Williams was the keynote speaker in the third edition of the University at Buffalo’s “Beyond the Knife” endowed lecture series established by the Department of Surgery in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He is a professor of trauma and acute care surgery at University of Chicago Medicine.

The lecture series was initiated by Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and chair of surgery, and his colleagues, in order “to engage in difficult conversations surrounding racism and health care in the United States.”

In opening remarks, Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, thanked Schwaitzberg for “being a catalyst to advance these critical discussions.

“We are here today to address gun violence and its impact on our health, our community and our country,” she said. “This year’s topic of gun violence and racial hatred touches very close to home. The May 14 Tops supermarket mass shooting opened longstanding wounds of trauma and neglect in Buffalo and Black neighborhoods.

“Gun violence is now the top public health crisis. It is time to make that clear,” Brashear added. “As health care providers, we see the ravage that gun violence makes in our communities. All of us can do something to demand action.”

Community Members Partake in Event

Severe weather conditions in Dallas prevented Williams from traveling to Buffalo so he participated in the event via videoconference.

More than 800 students, faculty and community members participated in the Feb. 2 event, including about 400 people in person in the M&T Lecture Hall in the Jacobs School.

Schwaitzberg said he was “thrilled that so many in the community are here. This is your medical school, and we are glad that you joined us today.”

He noted the work of his department’s social justice and health equity team, which has met every other week for almost the past three years “since the tragic murder of George Floyd.

“One thing that a medical school does that no other institution in the world can lay claim to is that we make doctors. And the medical students are the very best of us,” Schwaitzberg said, in thanking the various student groups at the Jacobs School.

‘Gun Homicide is a Black Male Problem’

Williams opened his keynote address “Racism, Gun Violence & How We Heal: Dispatches from a Black Trauma Surgeon,” by recalling a phone call he received from his mother informing him that his cousin had been shot and killed by her intimate partner in front of her three young children.

“I share that story because for me, gun violence — it is personal,” he said.

Williams is an Air Force Academy alumnus who received his medical degree from the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa, completed general surgery residency training at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and completed two fellowships, trauma surgery and surgical critical care, at Emory University/Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

He is the author of the forthcoming “The Bodies Keep Coming: Dispatches from a Black Trauma Surgeon on Racism, Violence and How we Heal” (Sept. 2023, Broadleaf Books).

“I am a trauma surgeon, that is the life I chose,” he said, noting he still remembers encountering his first gunshot victim during his third year of medical school in Tampa.

”I was watching the team go all out to save this patient. It looked like chaos, but it was organized chaos. I said, ‘that is what I want to do.’ I was attracted to the speed, the adrenaline, making quick decisions, trying to save patients that were at death’s door.

“But there has been one constant ever since that night that still troubles me. From Tampa to Boston to Atlanta to Dallas to Chicago — it’s that most of my patients — gun violence victims —have been young Black males,” Williams said.

Williams asserted that “gun homicide is a Black male problem.”

“When you pronounce that many deaths of people who look like me and after you console families that look like mine — that changes you, it slowly eats away at you,” he said. “We must talk about the role systemic racism plays in certain communities.

“Here’s what we don’t really talk about. For many, many years, gun violence was the number one cause of death for Black children,” Williams said. “But it did not become front page news until a couple of years ago when a study showed it was the number one cause of death for all children. We cannot separate race and gun violence. There is always a racial element.”

Williams also made note of the May 14, 2022, mass shooting at Tops.

“I also think about communities that are traumatized by gun violence like yours. And how one young man with a gun came in and transformed your community,” he said. “We are all impacted by that and I want to acknowledge that you are not alone.”

Medical student Malaika de Weever.

Second-year medical student Malaika de Weever asked a question about the relationship between social determinants of health and gun violence.

Tragic Shooting in Dallas Life-Altering Event

Williams said he also needed to acknowledge his own failings in the past.

“I thought by being a doctor I was doing enough. But the reality I recognize now is that there was much more that could be done in the community upstream — things that could be done outside of the hospital to put myself out of a job.”

A tragedy in Dallas made Williams realize there was more he could be doing.

It occurred on July 7, 2016, and became the largest loss of life for U.S. law enforcement since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During what was supposed to be a peaceful protest against Black men being killed by police officers, a Black U.S. Army veteran with an assault rifle shot 14 police officers, killing five. Seven of the injured officers were transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital where Williams was in charge of the trauma team.

“It is still the most memorable night in my career, and I don’t mean memorable in a good way. It is something I think about every day, even to this day. It has permanently changed who I am and how I view the world,” Williams said.

Shortly afterwards, a press conference was scheduled to discuss this mass casualty event.

Williams was invited to attend, but initially declined, saying he wanted “zero triggers to remind me of that night.”

“But my wife told me ‘get over yourself, this is not about you, this is something bigger than you. The narrative right now is how Black men are evil or Black men are violent. There was a Black doctor there in charge, trying to save these police officers. They need to know that.’”

Williams decided to be present at the press conference so he could be seen, but did not intend to speak.

That changed when the tenor of the press conference was not sitting well with him.

“I was debating in my head what to do. If I don’t say something this moment will be lost, but if I do, I will probably most certainly be fired because that was not my role that day.”

“In the end, I decided to say something, and I tell you if you have these opportunities to do the right thing, it is liberating,” Williams said.

Doing the Work Outside of the Hospital

Among the statements Williams made in an anguished interview with national media, were “I understand the anger and the frustration and the 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. It weighs on my mind constantly. This killing has to stop. Black men dying and being forgotten. People retaliating against the people who are sworn to defend us. We have to come together and end all this.”

The impact of that day led Williams away from surgery for two years as he worked on police-community relations in Dallas and became a national thought leader on public health and racism.

He worked full time as medical director of a community health institute to address health care disparities within Dallas County and the Dallas mayor appointed him chair of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Board.

“I started doing things outside the hospital that could have an impact,” Williams said. “It was necessary to communicate, converse and collaborate with those outside the hospital — those that are closest to the problem — to develop solutions,”

Williams noted, in those situations, that was the epitome of “beyond the knife.” 

“My scalpel was totally useless in those situations,” he said.

Williams said the solution is to talk about external systemic issues enrooted in structural racism — social determinants of health such as criminal justice, economic opportunity, health care access and affordability — systemic issues that have existed for generations.

“Solve that and you will solve a lot of issues, not just gun violence,” he said.

Medical students and undergrduate students participated in a one-on-son question-and-answer session with Brian H. Williams, MD, before his speech.

Medical students and undergrduate students participated in a one-on-one question-and-answer session with Brian H. Williams, MD, before his speech.

Students Host One-On-One Q&A Session

Williams also met with medical students and undergraduate students prior to the main lecture in an informal question-and-answer session via videoconferencing.

Shawn Gibson, a fourth-year medical student and a co-founder of the Jonathan Daniels, MD, Chapter of Black Men in White Coats at the Jacobs School, asked Williams if he could go back in time what advice he would give to himself as a PGY-1 student.

“I would say ‘You belong here. You have done the work. You have earned it.’ It’s important because as you progress through your training and your career you will see less and less people like you,” he said. 

“You can’t be something you are not. You need to bring yourself to work every day — your experiences, your opinions, that all matters — do not leave it at the door of the hospital when you come in to do your job. The patients deserve that, and your team deserves that.”

Second-year medical student Katherine Foote asked Williams how he deals with discrimination and finds peace within himself.

“Racism and discrimination are pervasive throughout all phases of training. I have been called the N-word as a student, resident, fellow and faculty — and not just by intoxicated patients in the Emergency Room,” Williams said. “I just keep saying to myself that a lot of people made sacrifices for me to get where I am now, and I am not going to let that break me.”

Second-year medical student Malaika de Weever said she was grateful for the opportunity to meet Williams.

“As a medical student and a woman of color, it is inspiring to meet physicians who look like me — especially in the field of surgery where there are so few,” she said. “What resonated most with me was his ability to navigate the intersection of his personal and professional identities so masterfully. Dr. Williams has led by example and as I continue in my training, I will be sure to hold on to the confidence and passion for social change that he has instilled in me.”

She also said she is “proud to attend a medical school that appreciates how diversity and social awareness affect all aspects of health, thereby making it a priority when it comes to my medical education.

“I believe that by creating these spaces for difficult conversations and challenging us to confront our personal biases, the Jacobs School has fostered an environment with cultural competency and social activism at the forefront,” de Weever added.

Anyone Can Become an Agent of Change

In closing his speech, Williams returned to a theme of love that had been espoused by his predecessors in the “Beyond the Knife” series — Cornel West, PhD, and Dierdre Cooper Owens, PhD.

“Love and healing go together. To eliminate systemic racism, you have to begin with love. Racism and love are incompatible,” Williams said. “Love that is unconditional, is not transactionable. Love that flows from each of us and binds us. We are all in this together. It is through love that we begin to heal.”

“Each of you has power. You are always on stage. You never know who you are going to inspire. You never know who’s lives may be changed by yours. And you certainly do not have to wait for a press conference to stand up for justice. You can speak anytime, and your moment is right now.”

Six members of cmmunity panel seated at table.

A six-member community panel, including two UB faculty members, contributed to the dicussion on gun violence, racism and health inequities.

Community Panel Contributes to Discussion

The event also featured a community panel focused on the issue of gun violence.

Panelists were:

  • La’Tryse Anderson, outreach supervisor for Buffalo SNUG (Should Never Use Guns)
  • Gale R. Burstein, MD, Erie County commissioner of health and clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School
  • John V. Elmore, attorney
  • Sherry Sherrill, project facilitator, We are Women Warriors
  • Chris St. Vil, PhD, assistant professor, UB School of Social Work
  • Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., PhD, professor of urban and regional planning, School of Architecture and Planning, and director of the UB Center for Urban Studies

Rod Watson, urban affairs editor and columnist with The Buffalo News, acted as moderator and noted “gun violence is one of the most politically polarizing issues that we face as a nation.

“If you look at national surveys, I think there is a consensus, even among most gun owners, that there is a lot more that we could be doing, but aren’t doing just because of the politics,” Watson said.

Watson and the panelists were introduced by Michael Lamb, MD, research assistant professor of surgery and director of surgical education at the Jacobs School. Williams was introduced by Timothy M. Adams, MD, clinical assistant professor of surgery.