I. Michele Williams, MD, FAAP
Pediatrician & Chief Medical Officer
Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center
Growing up in nearby Columbia, Tenn., Michele Williams credits her three brothers with teaching her to be tough ... and tender.
Williams' oldest brother was diagnosed with a benign tumor on his spine, which led to a year in a full body cast and traction when he was in seventh grade. Often accompanying her mother to Vanderbilt, Williams was fascinated by all things medical. "I was his private nurse ... I thought ... and from then on I wanted to become a pediatrician and go to Vanderbilt University," she recalled. And so she did just that - earning an undergraduate math degree from Vanderbilt before completing her medical degree, internship and residency at the academic medical center.
Williams readily credits a number of role models and mentors with helping her achieve her dreams. Her childhood pediatricians - Rufus Clifford, MD, and Patricia Davis, MD - always encouraged their young patient, and the practice purchased books for her before she headed off to college. At Vanderbilt, Williams said Gerald Hickson, MD, and Ellen Wright Clayton, JD, MD, really took her under their wings and allowed her to shadow them beginning her second year of undergrad before she had even started her medical training. "Dr. Joseph Gigante and Dr. Theodora Pinnock, while in residency, helped mold me to become a better physician," she noted.
Williams added Meharry pediatrician and associate professor Olayinka Onadeko, MD, continues to mentor and guide her "with his love for teaching students and seeing patients." In fact, she continued, those are the two things she also enjoys the most - seeing happy, healthy children run to the 'treasure' box at the end of an appointment and being part of training the next generation of providers.
"I can't forget teaching students that will be our future doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses and explaining to them our patient population has a lot of uphill battles that we must help them overcome with compassion and empowerment over their health decisions," Williams said, adding one of the greatest challenges she and her staff face is addressing the psychosocial problems that often interfere with patients achieving optimal health.
Williams is passionate about leveling the playing field to ensure all patients receive quality care whether or not they have commercial insurance. "There should not be any different level of service because you are at a private practice office, Vanderbilt or a FQHC," she stated. She and her colleagues are working hard to change the perception of Federally Qualified Health Centers. "I would like our clinic to be the first option and not the last choice when it comes to healthcare," she said. "Our patients love us when they come, but the negative connotation of a 'free clinic' and 'poor care' is incorrect."
When she isn't caring for children at work, she stays busy with her own two at home. An athletic family, Williams said the trio is very supportive of each other, yet quite competitive with interests ranging from sports to cooking. Williams laughingly noted they aren't afraid to coach from the sidelines and offer up an opinion on everything from play selection to the perfect seasonings for grilling. Cooking, she added, is a team sport. "The family all participates. Everybody knows if you don't cook you have to clean!"
Son Jestin, who played football for Alcorn State, is now in his second year at Meharry. Daughter Jayla is finishing her freshman year of high school at St. Cecilia Academy. "My son is currently in medical school and trying to convince my daughter that she needs to join us and not the law field," Williams said with a smile.
What is most important to her as a mother and mentor, however, is to pass along the idea of staying open to possibilities ... even if they are different from what you might have imagined.
"Community health is not what I was looking for when I finished residency," Williams said. "But once I was exposed to Metro General Hospital/Meharry Medical College and loaned out to Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center, I knew where I belonged and my God-given purpose in life."
Finding that same sense of purpose is all she could wish for both her children and her students.