A Family of Physicians
Growing up, I sort of knew that I would become a doctor. My grandfather, L. Polk Williams, Sr. MD, brought modern medicine to the small town of Edenton, North Carolina in the early 1920's. He was the first formally trained family physician in the region and cared for all problems...surgery included. During the Great Depression, grateful patients would leave chickens and livestock at his back door in exchange for the house calls and lifesaving care he provided. He was beloved in that small rural town. He went into medicine solely because his parents knew he could not physically work on the family farm. He was stricken with polio as a child in the late 1800's. As a result, he had a lifelong, limping stride because one leg was weaker and shorter than the other. His parents guided him into education rather than farming, which led to his career in medicine. He became the first of three consecutive generations to enter the field of medicine. He retired at 80. My father, L. Polk Williams, Jr. MD, followed in his footsteps into medicine and also attended Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray School of Medicine. He returned to his home town of Edenton after training in surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and brought Dr. Michael Debakey's world-class surgical care with him.
Dr. Michael E. Debakey
I grew up with stories from my father about the surgical exploits of Dr. Michael E. Debakey. He was the world's greatest cardiovascular surgeon of the 20th century. My dad's recollections from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s always outlined the innovations he saw first hand and Dr. Debakey's demand for super-human performance from his surgical residents. I never foresaw that I would train in surgery with the same man thirty years later.
Dr. Debakey’s training program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas is legendary for requiring residents to work long hours and perform more surgeries than any other in the United States. Surgical "residents" are called this because they spend so many hours a day training to become a surgeon that they effectively reside at the large hospitals where they serve. Surgical residency programs are prestigious and coveted positions for new medical school graduates. It takes at least 5 years of surgery residency training to be able to practice surgery independently. At Baylor, anything less than perfection was unacceptable from his surgical residents
College and Medical School: Surgery or Neurology?
I entered Duke University as a freshman knowing that becoming a doctor was my goal. I became fascinated by the complexity of the brain and soon found myself performing neurology research at Duke University School of Medicine. I graduated with distinction in psychology, primarily because of this neuroscience research. I presented the results of my senior thesis at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Toronto, Canada in 1992.
I still wanted to be a neurologist until I realized that surgery fascinated me more than the brain. My need to diagnose a problem and be capable of fixing it was insatiable. I interviewed all over the country for a surgical residency position. My travels ultimately led to Houston, where my father had trained at Baylor College of Medicine.
Surgical Residency: The World of Dr. Debakey
Dr. Michael E. Debakey and myself performing an aortic reconstruction at Ben Taub General Hospital, Houston, TX, 1997.
Baylor is legendary for its intense demeanor and quality surgical training. Dr. Debakey loomed large over everything at the entire institution.
At the large Houston trauma hospital, Ben Taub General Hospital, surgical residents had great autonomy. We would decide which trauma patient, and in what order, we would operate upon through the day and night. It was similar to the triage process of the M*A*S*H* units that Dr. Debakey developed for the military during World War II and the Korean War with the Army Office of the Surgeon General. Many residency programs do not give their young surgeons the level of responsibility that we had at Baylor. Our training motto was "See one, do one, teach one." We all developed great confidence and skill from this training process.
A large part of my training was working with the experts in cancer treatment at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC). Also located in the Texas Medical Center, MDACC is the largest and most prestigious dedicated cancer hospital in the United States. My general surgery rotations there exposed me to the team approach to breast cancer. This multidisciplinary team concept is what I created at the Novant UVA Breast Center in Haymarket, Virginia.
I joined Northern Virginia Surgical Specialists in 1999. Our surgical practice has been in continuous service of the region for over 50 years. I have been practicing breast surgery almost exclusively since 2006. I then established the Novant UVA Breast Center in 2009.
Professionally, I am most proud to have applied to breast cancer care the same pursuit of excellence that I learned from Dr. Debakey and his associates at Baylor. Each day, I try to apply a singular focus on every patient as a unique individual. To me, these lifelong relationships are the most rewarding aspect of being a physician.
Created the "Breast Cancer School for Patients"
In 2018, I launched the very first video-based educational website for breast cancer patients. The Breast Cancer School for Patients. This three year in patient advocacy is a leap forward in communicating the complex concepts of breast cancer care to women who are newly diagnosed. It is a vast improvement on the exisiting "information only" available online. www.breastcancercourse.org
Over the years, family and friends have called me for advice about their breast care. After a quick conversation, they were incredibly empowered to ask their own doctors exactly what was needed. You simply get better care when you know about the important topics and the questions to ask.
That is why I created the Breast Cancer School for Patients. Currently, the medical profession does not actually “teach” patients how to obtain quality, cutting-edge care in their communities. This is a missing link in our collective efforts to provide better quality breast cancer care in the United States.
I feel it should be our duty in healthcare to teach you what you need to know before you consult with your breast cancer physicians. This way you can be more engaged with your physicians about the complexities of cancer care. This information must be readily available online, well organized, and in short video format. Our sole mission at the Breast Cancer School for Patients is to fill this patient information gap online. You will make better treatment decisions when you are taught to be an “expert” in your own breast cancer care.