In honor of Black History Month, we will be running a blog series written by HSS physicians and medical staff. Our second installment is written by Dr. Riley Williams. Read our previous installment with Dr. Daphne Scott here.
I grew up in Compton, California, which at the time was a bit rough. I viewed school as a way to pave an exit from the old neighborhood. Fortunately, I had a strong aptitude for science and math. My academic interests led me to look at the landscape of possible professions, like medicine. I figured that I would use my deep inner drive to leave a mark on the world, and make a difference. Medicine was appealing because I could envision a clear pathway to success as long as I was focused and dedicated. I graduated high school with the intention of becoming a physician. I attended college at Yale and medical school at Stanford. —I settled on a career in Orthopedic Surgery and was ultimately offered a position to train at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. I started at HSS in 1992 as a resident, and I also did my Sports Medicine Fellowship there in 1997. After completing my training I was offered a staff position at HSS, and I have worked here ever since.
As a young man, I did not have much exposure to many successful professionals. Nonetheless, I was inspired by Dr. Ben Carson, who also went to Yale; Dr. Augustus White, the first African American graduate of Stanford Medical School; and Dr. Clarence Shields, team physician of the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s. Simply being aware of these successful African American physicians, I knew it was possible to be a successful Black surgeon. These men served as my role models.
I started at HSS in 1992. At the time, there was only one African American physician on-staff, an anesthesiologist. HSS was also a much smaller place back then as there were around 30 surgeons on staff at the time. There are now over 100 surgeons’ on-staff. By my count, I was the sixth African American physician to train at HSS in Orthopedic Surgery.. The HSS residency was rigorous, and one had to be astute and aware to successfully navigate the program successfully . Soon after my arrival, a few African American surgeons joined the staff at HSS. Their presence made HSS a more hospitable environment for me personally. My training years at HSS marked an important time of personal growth. As I learned and developed as a surgeon, I easily envisioned myself being prosperous and having a successful surgical career.
I played sports in high school and college, and have always thought of myself as an athlete. However, most would agree that my academic abilities far outweighed my athletic prowess. Fortunately my chosen career has allowed me to combine two of my most fervent passions: Medicine and Sports. Orthopedic surgeons, as musculoskeletal practitioners are ideally suited to work with athletes at all levels. I appreciate the drive and desire my patients have for their chosen sports and I find that I can capitalize on their motivation in order to facilitate a timely and successful return to sports. Working with many professional teams and eventually becoming a head team physician has been tremendously satisfying. I appreciate that there are a limited number of professional team physician positions available, and I humbled to well regarded in these circles. Working on high level athletes demands that I remain current and knowledgeable; I have to stay sharp to remain on the cutting edge sports-related medical techniques.
I consider myself a husband and father first, and a doctor second. I have a great family and two beautiful daughters over whom I dote. I look at my profession as a means of facilitating the inner workings of the Williams. It’s the support that I’m able to provide for them that really makes me the most proud; it’s been a long journey from my early L.A. days. At time the balance between work and home can be challenging.. I like to think that I am teaching my children by example; I believe in a serious effort to achieve good results at work and at home. As a father of teenagers, I understand the issues that surround the pressures of high school and college. I would encourage any individual who may want to follow in my footsteps to remain in the moment, and be excellent. Also, understand that we all have to do things that may interest us in the short term; don’t focus on the now and keep your eye on the long term benefits of your work. It is my firm belief that we all have to “pay” a little to reach the Promised Land, and hopefully when you arrive, you will be as happy and excited as I am to go to work every day.
Dr. Riley J. Williams III is the Medical Director & Head Team Physician for the Brooklyn Nets & New York Red Bulls. He is also the Team Physician for USA Basketball and works as the Team Physician for the Iona College Department of Athletics.