The year was 1975 and Gross-Williams–then a 27-year-old newlywed–was six months away from becoming a doctor, one of only five African-Americans in a class of 177 students at Northwestern University Medical School.
After clearing some daunting hurdles, she had her eye on the prize: a residency in anesthesiology. “Success was so close I could almost taste it,” she says now. Then, Gross-Williams was struck by a mysterious ailment that started as a rash and escalated into a 106-degree fever. Six days after it began, she learned she had Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare illness that had caused lesions to form on her corneas–destroying her tear ducts and robbing her of her vision.
As a black woman in medicine, she was accustomed to uphill climbs. “But blindness made me a triple minority,” she says, from her sunny Chicago apartment. “It pushed me way out onto the periphery, and I had to struggle to pull myself back into the mainstream.”
Indeed, for the next three months, Gross-Williams grappled with feelings of vulnerability and depression. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening,” she recalls. “But eventually I got to the point where I didn’t want to wallow in it anymore. I wanted to overcome it.”
The only way to heal, she thought, was to scrap any thought of becoming a doctor, a dream nurtured since childhood when she would iron her mother’s nursing caps. Despite the years of grueling study, Gross-Williams told herself that she needed to “just let it go.”
Her plan was to become a medical transcriptionist, a realistic career goal, she decided, for a blind person who knew scientific terminology. But her professors thought she could do better. Finish your degree, they told her–only replace anesthesiology with psychiatry. “They said, ‘We were just waiting for you to come around.’ For me, that was a real turning point.”
Even with such support, there were incredible obstacles ahead. Gross-Williams had to relearn even the most simple tasks, like choosing clothes. When she started her residency–she would eventually become an adolescent psychiatrist–she had to adjust to the fact that she couldn’t rely on visual cues from her patients. Still, she never made excuses for herself. “Once I came up with the wrong diagnosis,” she remembers, “which my instructors attributed to my blindness. I told them, ‘Hey, being blind has nothing to do with it. I just missed it.'”
In November 1977, her twin sons, Guerin and Cazzie, were born. After a three-month leave from the residency program, she was back on the job, juggling home, work, and two infants she couldn’t see. “It was- a little overwhelming,” she says with typical understatement.
Her marriage to mathematics professor Richard Williams eventually buckled under the strain. He now lives just a few blocks away, sharing custody of the boys and enjoying an amicable relationship with his ex-wife.
It is testimony to Gross-Williams’s spirit that she can make blindness sound like an advantage in child-rearing. “The boys helped with the grocery shopping,” she says. “And they’ve been balancing my checkbook since they were ten.”
On only two occasions, she adds, did sightlessness make mothering more difficult: when, as a toddler, Cazzie crawled away from her (he later was found behind the curtains, sound asleep), and more recently, when the boys hid a friend who had run away from home.
Transgressions like that one have always been met with firm discipline. But even an adolescent psychiatrist doesn’t have all the answers. “Because of what I do for a living, I can recognize problems a little earlier,” says Gross-Williams, “but you can’t treat your own kids. Professionals have to learn the hard way, like everyone else.”
This month, the boys are off to college, and Mom is planning to train with a guide dog for the first time. “It’s going to be tough at first, but I’ll be fine and so will the boys. They’re more flexible than most kids. They understand the importance of having a Plan B.”
They also understand perseverance. Says Guerin: “I grew up like an average kid, except with the idea that I could always do just a little bit more. And whenever I wanted to give up, I would think, ‘Well, if Mom can do it, I can do it too.'”