JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Dr. Randall Williams isn’t from Missouri, but unless he mentions it, you probably wouldn’t realize that about the bow tie clad man who oversees the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Earlier this summer, Williams stumbled across a group of about a dozen singers from a Texas church visiting the Capitol building. Had they been given a tour of the building he loves so much? No one had. So Williams did, taking a video of the ensemble singing, promising to share it with the governor.
After all, as Williams says, it’s in the DNA of Missourians to help their neighbor.
Williams, an OBGYN, took over as the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) after he was appointed by former Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017. Before that, Williams worked in North Carolina, his home state, as the director for its Department of Health and Human Services. He didn’t plan to leave the Tar Heel State for Missouri, a place he only briefly visited as a child, but after flying out for an interview, he was hooked.
“I tell people all the time: I’m a North Carolinian by birth, a Missourian by choice, and both by God’s grace,” Williams said with a smile.
Williams has found himself in the middle of a media storm in recent weeks as Missouri prepares to enact a strict abortion ban. But before the law goes into effect later this month, the state became embroiled in a legal battle with a St. Louis Planned Parenthood facility, the lone clinic in the state able to provide abortion services, over a licensing conflict. The dispute is slated to be heard before the Administrative Hearing Commission in October.
Williams maintains his commitment rests with ensuring all Missouri healthcare facilities — regardless if abortion services are provided — follow the law. In fact, he says his biggest goal as DHSS director is “protecting health and keeping the people of Missouri safe.”
“Abortion is legal in Missouri, and we encourage all to work with our regulators to make sure it is safe,” Williams said. “We do not let this part of our work keep us from the incredibly important issues we face … but it does mean we work many 14-hour days and more weekends — that just comes with the job.”
Regardless of where one comes down on the abortion debate, Williams’ commitment to learning about and promoting Missouri is undeniable. He spent the first several weekends after he moved to the Show-Me State traveling to every county in Missouri, sitting down with healthcare officials at all hours of the day and taking in their concerns.
“It’s where I fell in love with Missouri — the beauty of the state and the basic goodness of its people,” Williams told The Missouri Times. “It was and remains one of the greatest memories of my life, and everyone was incredibly gracious.”
One issue that remained at the forefront of concerns brought to him as he traveled the state — both in rural and urban areas — was the opioid crisis. How the epidemic manifested itself varied by community, but it still affected nearly every, if not all, of the counties he visited.
“We’ve got to move upstream, to the degree we can, so people don’t become addicted in the first place. .. The second [thing] is stopping the deaths in St. Louis” where most of the opioid deaths in the state occur, Williams said of his plans to tackle the crisis. Aside from addiction, heroin or other drugs can be laced with fentanyl without the users’ knowledge, contributing more to accidental overdoses in the state.
He said he’s most proud of the General Assembly passing a universal Narcan law in 2017, allowing anyone to obtain the life-saving antidote to overdoses under his Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) number.
Additionally, Williams has a focus on improving health care access in rural areas, rolling out the medical marijuana initiative, improving women’s health care, and decreasing the maternal and infant mortality rates.
“It’s such a privilege to serve six million people that we get up everyday — whether it’s an infectious disease or the facilities they go into — that we’re looking after them,” Williams said.
Williams also gets up every morning — at the crack of dawn — to go for a run with his dog Mo, who Williams says gets invited to more events than he does. The pair starts their run before 5 a.m. and traipse along the Missouri River.
“As I cross the bridge and look at the Capitol as the sun rises, I truly feel blessed and privileged to work with my colleagues as we work to serve the people of Missouri,” he said.
Williams’ love for Missouri and dedication to the job hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sen. Doug Libla said Williams is “the hardest working bureaucrat [he has] ever met.”
“On several occasions, I have observed Dr. Williams going the extra mile to help our citizens in Missouri,” Libla told The Missouri Times. “He has made himself available and seems to work 24/7 with a great can-do attitude. He always tries to make it happen instead of taking the easy way out.”
Aside from his work on the East Coast, Williams has spent significant time in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Libya, volunteering, training, and assisting obstetricians. He is also the founder of the Kurdish Iraq OBGYN Society and points to female physicians he’s met in Iraq as his inspirations when he needs courage.
“It has exposed me to a degree of human suffering that will break your heart,” Williams, who is set to go back to the Middle East in the coming weeks, said. “But it has taught me that people are a lot more alike than they are different, and moms love their babies the same no matter what their background. … I have watched a mom in Afghanistan watch her baby dying from an infection that we treat all the time in the United States, and I was with Ambassador [Chris] Stevens in Libya two weeks before he was killed by terrorists. I have seen things that have broken my heart, but it has given me a great appreciation for our freedoms and our healthcare, and it helps me realize the privileges and blessings I have as well as my responsibility to use those to help others.”
Williams said he’s placed a “huge premium” on going where the people are — whether that’s Missourians or those in the Middle East. And he’s instructed his staff to have a “bias for action,” meaning they might forgo how the office was handled in the past to ensure the department is actively helping people currently.
“Our North Star is to help people. That has to be the basis for action. We’re not acting just to act. We’re acting to help people,” Williams said.
It’s hard to tell what Williams loves more: Missouri or bow ties. The doctor owns at least 80, he says, but his favorite is one from – you guessed it — Missouri. Williams taught a public policy course at the University of Missouri last year, so his preferred neckwear is his gold and black striped tie. He credits his proclivity for bow ties as stemming from a Watty Bowes, an impactful college professor.
The walls of Williams’ personal office — and the DHSS building as a whole — are cluttered with photos, maps, quotes from Mark Twain and Harry Truman, and other memorabilia. He has no qualms with taking time out of his day to walk visitors around the building, sharing memories from his Libya security detail or that time he sat in the East Room of the White House while President Trump stood in front of him and announced new initiatives to tackle the nation’s opioid crisis.
You can visit Williams office a stranger. But it’s very likely you won’t leave feeling the same.
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in March 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City. Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S. and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa. She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Contact Kaitlyn at email@example.com.