August 20, 2017

Dominique R. Williams, MD, MPH, FAAP

williamsDr. Dominique Williams is a Board-certified pediatrician who serves as Medical Director of the Healthy You for Life program at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Case Western Reserve University and her doctor of medicine degree from Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton. She completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at Columbus Children’s Hospital in 2004, and earned a Master of Public Health in Nutrition in 2013 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at EVMS.

Dr. Williams is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and its Virginia Chapter.

 

When Dominique Williams was 11 years old, she told her mother she was going to be a neurosurgeon. Her mother, an RN and director at a school of nursing, knew better than to question her daughter. “Education was always emphasized in my family,” she says, “so it was assumed we’d finish college and go beyond. My mother didn’t bat an eye: she found residents who would talk to me.”

She took her bachelor’s degree in nutrition, because, she says, “Even as an undergrad I had no interest in biology to study it for four years, no interest in chemistry. But I had a very big interest in nutrition, and I felt that would be relevant on my road to being a brain surgeon.”

At no time did she ever consider a career as a pediatrician. “I didn’t like kids,” she says candidly. “I didn’t like being around them; I didn’t understand why they cried so much. I internalized it – I thought I wasn’t supposed to take care of children.” But that was before she had any clinical experience. It was in her third year that she took a pediatrics rotation. “I had enjoyed all the others,” she remembers, “and I received positive feedback – but I always had a headache at the end of the day. But after my first day in pediatrics, no headache. Second day, no headache. I remember thinking, ‘this is compelling.’”

As for their crying, the more she was exposed to sick kids, the more she understood what the crying was about. For some of them, that was the best they could do. “And that,” she says, “was the beginning of my using my powers for good.”

Dr. Williams describes herself as “fun-sized,” referring to her not-quite-five-foot frame. “I’m kind of a dorky, goofy person, and for the first time, that worked to my advantage. For kids, suddenly a doctor in a white coat was accessible. I used my size and my personality to reach them. And I fell in love.” She knew she had found her specialty.

Her first position was in primary care with Chesapeake Pediatrics. “They took a chance on an Ohio girl with a nutrition background,” she says. Six months into practice, she was offered the opportunity to talk to parents about the complications of obesity for their children. It was then that she knew she had found her niche.

It took a leap of faith to leave private practice to focus entirely on the problems of overweight and obese kids, but, as Dr. Williams describes it, “It became increasingly evident that this is where I was supposed to be. I have a heart to serve these kids.”

She has strong feelings about the epidemic of childhood obesity. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with the tiniest pieces. Every piece needs to be connected to another piece in order to solve the puzzle. I can’t say it’s any one thing I’d attribute the epidemic to; it’s been more of a shift over time. We’ve changed how foods are packaged and supplied, and we’ve created a salty, fat palate that has a preference for something with little nutritive value.”

But that’s only one of the pieces of the puzzle. Dr. Williams’ Master’s thesis was on the role of victimization in aspects of obesity. She researched the theory that witnessing domestic violence, being a victim of domestic violence, being a victim of bullying, operating in a constant state of fear and trepidation, wreaks havoc on a child’s metabolism. It wreaks havoc on coping skills, and on willingness to go outside and play, whether for fear of getting beaten up or fear of being isolated. “These kids seek refuge in food that always makes them feel good, doesn’t give them negative feedback,” she says. “My thesis was that victimization was just as important to address as the food supply and environment and physical activity. Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, moms and children not feeling safe – these are the undercurrents that create obesity.”

In the Healthy You for Life program, Dr. Williams says, “We have two social workers, a dietician, a physical therapist, an exercise specialist – there’s a team of us to address the different aspects. But if that kid’s heart is broken, it will undermine the attempts to address how they’re going to eat or move their body. It will even undermine their willingness to consider that they’re capable of change, if all they do is operate in this circle of negativity.”

There is accountability but no judgment in the program, which is evidence-based and proven. Instead, the emphasis is on helping families gain the confidence that they had the potential to change all along. “We never ask for perfection, we ask for your best,” Dr. Williams says. “We add personality to the science. I can still be nerdy and intellectual and use that drive to help these families.”