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Dal Med Innovator | Chadwick Williams

Posted by Colin Hodd on February 13, 2018 in News
Dr. Chadwick Williams (Jollymore Photos)
Dr. Chadwick Williams (Jollymore Photos)

Dr. Chadwick Williams: A shining light for Nova Scotia’s African communities

Chadwick Williams is a child of the two Prestons, growing up in East Preston but spending lots of time with his mother’s family in North Preston. Together, these areas are home to some of Nova Scotia’s oldest Black communities. Williams attended Cole Harbour District High School before going to Dalhousie University for his Bachelor of Science, and stayed with
Dal into medical school.  

“Dal Med went by really quickly. And I think that’s because when you do something that you really enjoy doing, it doesn’t feel like work,” recalls Dr. Williams. “It was fun, and you were with people who were like-minded. Before you knew it the first year was over and then the second, third and fourth year are done and you’re applying for residency programs across the country.” 

After graduating from Dal Med in 2004, the newly minted Dr. Williams headed west to Calgary, where he did three years of residency training in internal medicine, followed by two years in gastroenterology—a specialty that offered the mix of procedural and clinical work he desired. His family history of chronic gastrointestinal disorders then led him on to Los Angeles for a year of fellowship training in inflammatory bowel disease at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Dr. Williams returned to the Maritimes and began practicing in Saint John. After seven years in the Port City, he is back in Nova Scotia this year at the Woodlawn Medical Centre and Dartmouth General Hospital. He loves the work and says that, any time he works with patients, he wants the relationship to be an interaction between equals. 

“People are people. I’m just the same as the patient who’s coming in. I’ve got knowledge about some diseased states that they may or may not have. And my role is really to try and put the pieces together,” says the gastroenterologist. “I look at myself as more of a provider of information, and I try to do that in a friendly way because I think physicians can be intimidating to patients.” 

Dr. Williams is one of the first African Nova Scotians to graduate from Dal Med. Given that he received his MD in 2004, and is only 42 years old, his achievement says something about the Black Nova Scotian struggle that continues even today. 

“I wish this wasn’t even a topic of discussion. I wish people could say, ‘Oh, there’s 500 of these grads over the last 150 years,’” he says. “Sadly, that’s not the case. That being said, since my graduation from Dal, there has been a lot of progress in encouraging kids from minority communities to consider a career in medicine.” 

This past year, six African-descended students graduated from Dalhousie Medical School—the most ever—and six more are slated to receive MDs this year. This progress has come as the result of concerted joint efforts between Dalhousie and African Nova Scotian communities.

For Dr. Williams, it began in 2012 when he was asked to attend a community event led by Dalhousie professor Dr. David Haase at the Black Cultural Centre. The idea was to identify—and start to dismantle—the systemic barriers that make it more difficult for members of minority communities to pursue certain careers. 

“For a kid looking to go to med school, regardless of who the person is and how strong they are mentally, there is going to be a problem if they don’t see people that look like them who are doing what they want to do,” notes Dr. Williams. “They know on some level that they can do it, but something tells them, ‘Nobody else has done it, what makes me think I’m going to be the first to do this?’” 

Dr. Williams, whose own cousin graduated from Dal Med in 2017, believes the tide is turning. Since that 2012 event, for example, Dalhousie has established PLANS (Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians), specifically to raise awareness and build confidence in young African Nova Scotians that they can have successful careers in the health professions. PLANS works with students as early as junior high into high school, the critical years when children are forming an idea of what is possible for them.

As kids move through PLANS programs like the African Nova Scotian Health Sciences Summer Camp, they’re connected with other students who have similar goals, and mentors who can help them get where they want to be. One of Dr. Williams’ own early mentors, Dr. Margaret Casey, has seen him grow into a mentor himself, both informally and formally, as he gained an assistant professorship at both Dalhousie and Memorial University in 2011. 

“I was director of admissions at the medical school for six years and I knew Chad. He’s such an excellent person,” says Dr. Casey. “Seeing him in that role makes people understand ‘I can do it to.’ Because there has been racism, sometimes silent racism, here in Halifax. African Nova Scotians really did feel excluded. But that is changing. It’s wonderful to see it.” 

For his part, Dr. Williams feels that what he has accomplished is in some way ordinary. In being a role model, he’s really just returning the favour. 

“I did it because I thought I had the chops for it, and I had good family support. I had good support from Dalhousie and Dr. Casey,” says Dr. Williams. “When I’m asked to talk to youth about my experiences, I always try to emphasize to them: this is not extraordinary. This is not magic. This is somebody who had a goal, worked hard, and achieved it. I know people who do a much better job at all of those things. So you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to want it.”