Alumnus Shares Inspiring Journey with Medical Students

Live a life of compassion and humility…that is the key to a happy life

“First of all, you will never get into Amherst College and you will never be a doctor.”

These were the words of a high school counselor talking to Herman Williams (MED’88), then a high school student who had dreams of becoming a physician. These words were a sharp contrast to what he heard at home. While there were no physicians in Dr. Williams’ family, the support to pursue a career in medicine was ever present.

“They inspired me to dream big,” Dr. Williams said. “My mother always told me, ‘You can always do whatever you want to do in this world. Just pursue it.’”

Dr. Williams, who currently serves as Executive Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer for RCCH Healthcare Partners based in Tennessee, shared his story with BUSM students and faculty at a Nov. 1 event hosted by Dr. N. Stephen Ober (MED’86), Director of BUSM’s MD/MBA Dual Degree Program.

“I wanted to help people and be a world class doctor,” said Dr. Williams, who oversees all quality, safety and clinical activities for 18 regional health systems located in 12 states. He decided not to listen to his high school counselor and was accepted into Amherst College.

After graduating with his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1980, he took a year off and then was accepted at BUSM. Dr. Williams described the screams and cheers of excitement when he learned of his acceptance. He later received his Master of Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an MBA  from the Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In April 1991, Dr. Williams was as an orthopedic surgery resident in Seattle, but nothing had prepared him for what happened one day when he was off service. “Everything was perfect until April 28, [1991] when I walked onto the basketball floor.”

It was there that Dr. Williams had a life-threatening medical emergency of ventricular fibrillation. This type of arrhythmia, also known as a V-fib, is considered the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance, according to the American Heart Association. “I collapsed at the side of the bench and started foaming at the mouth.” Once the medical team arrived, they started performing CPR. Then they pulled out the defibrillator. One of them yelled out, “CLEAR!” However, it turned out the defibrillator was broken. After finding another one, a dose of electric current was successfully delivered to Dr. Williams’ heart and he was taken to the hospital. After waking up, he saw his then-fiancée Jeannie, and asked her what happened. She explained and then left the room. A few minutes later, she returned and again he asked her, “Jeannie, what happened?” Dr. Williams experienced short-term memory loss for the next 30 days.

While in the hospital, a physician explained they were doing trials for a pacemaker cardioverter defibrillator, a medical device that keeps track of your heartbeat and, when needed, sends electrical signals to start or regulate a slow heartbeat. “It feels like a strong hiccup,” he said to Dr. Williams, who then signed up to participate in the trial. It turned out the shocks were incredibly painful. After experiencing a series of shocks, Dr. Williams described how the defibrillator affected his life. “I was afraid to leave the house. The defibrillator was controlling my reality. The thing that was saving my life was keeping me from life.” Dr. Williams was later diagnosed with right ventricular dysplasia, a rare type of cardiomyopathy that disrupts the heart’s electrical signals and causes arrhythmias. After being prescribed medication, his life started to go back to normal. That was until February 2013.

Six months after being put on aspirin by his doctor, Dr. Williams developed an ulcer. On the day before he was scheduled to see his doctor again, he had a stroke and was sent to the emergency department. While he was there, Dr. Williams says he realized how he could move forward. It was at that time he decided to write a book about his experience as a way to help others.

His book, “CLEAR! Living the Life You Didn’t Dream Of,” describes the challenges he has experienced in life as well as the philosophy by which he now tries to live his life. “Every person that I interact with, I try to make them better off than when we first met.” He explained that the title of his book refers to the phrase “clear,” which is said before defibrillating, but also refers to the clarity that his experience of sudden cardiac death gave him.

Dr. Williams also discussed how to find one’s purpose and was asked by a BUSM student, “What are good ways of finding what you believe in and what you’re meant to do?”

“I would say first, what is my purpose? Why am I here?” replied Dr. Williams. “Then, what is my mission and what is my strategy for getting there?”

Dr. Williams ended the event by talking about how to achieve happiness. “If you live a life of compassion and humility, that will get you to where you want to be. That is the key to a happy life.”