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UW School of Medicine Chief Resident of General Surgery Estell Williams tries not to make much of a distinction between who she is as a doctor and who she is as a person. “I like to bring a little bit of who I am into what I do every day to allow patients to know that we’re human beings too.”

Dr. Williams, who was raised in East Oakland, California, by her dad and cousin, comes by her compassion and dedication to the community around her naturally. Her dad turned their family house into a group home for adults with mental disabilities. Her cousin became a psychiatric nurse and oversaw the group home. When Williams’s dad grew frustrated with the lack of quality daytime programming for his clients, he bought a car wash and developed it into a job training program.

“That’s what I was born into — a desire to give back to other people and see them to a place that’s better than where they were before,” says Williams.

For as long as she can remember, Williams’ desire to give back has taken the form of wanting to be a doctor. When her cousin attended nursing classes in the evening, Williams and her siblings tagged along. Williams, who was in elementary school at the time, took notes. Her notes were so good that her cousin sometimes used them.

As she got older Williams found programs that would help her pursue her goal. Like a science summer camp for middle school students where she did basic dissection of a pig’s eye and a shark’s eye, which she thought was “just the most amazing thing ever!”

Later she attended a high school program for underrepresented youth where she got to shadow doctors in a hospital. She vividly remembers peering over the drape in the first operating room she saw on her first day in the hospital and seeing a heart operation in progress. She turned to her supervising doctor and declared, “I want to do THAT!”


“We’re all just trying to survive in this world the best we know how.”


Williams credits her interest in surgery specifically to learning early in life the inherent satisfaction that can come from working with your hands. Her dad worked in construction, and Williams went on jobs with him to earn a little extra allowance. She learned framing, sheetrocking, plumbing, painting and minor electrical work. “Probably a little more than basic construction,” Williams says with typical understated humility.

“I’ve always been used to working with my hands and building things. That tactile feedback and being able to see things materialize before you — that’s probably why I was very interested in surgery.”

Williams is also very interested in figuring out how she can be most useful and have the biggest impact on communities in need.

“It can be easy for us to lose our humanity in this profession, for it to become more of a job instead of something you are called to do and privileged to do. But people are more than just that disease that is presented to you in the hospital. When I see a patent, I’m here to help them through something that may be a more challenging time in their life, just like I may come to them for something that I don’t know how to do. We’re all just trying to survive in this world the best we know how.”


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