The Silent Treatment

Because state law allows hospitals to keep their mistakes secret, James Williams may never know exactly how his wife went in for routine surgery and came out in a coma

The year 2000 should have been a wonderful one for James Williams. His business, an international development company, was thriving, and he had the endless energy to travel the globe closing lucrative deals. His family planned pleasure trips around the world--a vacation to Hawaii, a trip to the summer Olympics in Sydney. He was an active, respected member of his church. At 45, he looked forward to enjoying the life he had built with Sharon, his sweetheart since junior high, his wife of nearly 22 years.

"This is so different from where I ever imagined I'd be," he muses, shifting a quick glance around the private room, a sunny corner of Golden Valley's Vencor Hospital ("The specialty hospital for medically complex patients," the sign reads). "This is so different from where I'd ever been before."

As he speaks, Williams balances his linebacker-size body on a wooden stool. He is large, broad-chested and imposing, yet he exudes an easy kindness. His oval face and close-cropped hair highlight golden-brown eyes that gaze from under long lashes. Systematically, almost rhythmically, they dart to his side, to check on the woman with the cocoa skin and vacant gaze resting quietly in a hospital chair next to him. It is an involuntary action for Williams. His heart beats. He takes a breath. He looks at Sharon.

David Kern

In an instant Williams is at her side. He suctions saliva from around her mouth, swabs her lips and tongue. He dashes to the nurses' station to alert them when the bottle that feeds Sharon through a tube is empty, or when the humidifier that warms her breath is nearly out of water. His large hands have grown accustomed to the intricacies of caretaking, although the duties are clearly not natural to him; he still fumbles a bit as he pulls up the stockings that aid the circulation in Sharon's immobile legs, as he props up her head and hands. "Let's get some sunlight on your pretty plants, baby," he coos, pulling back the pastel curtains, allowing light to fall on the windowsill and the many framed photos of family and friends that adorn it.

He flicks a switch next to the bed, and strains of gospel music brush through the room. There are only two kinds of music allowed in here, Williams explains. Classical, because "it helps with the development of brain cells," and inspirational, "because we need a miracle from God." Every action is gentle, careful, deliberate--a man trying to control tiny details because he has no control over the single, overwhelming thing he'd most like to change.

"There's no reason why we should even be here," he says, "God has his reasons, but there is no human reason." He pauses, dabbing tears from his eyes. "My baby has had to go through so much, just because someone couldn't give us 15 minutes of their time."

Sharon Williams has been in a coma since the afternoon of April 11. After undergoing a successful routine surgery that day--a hysterectomy to eliminate painful fibroid cysts in her uterus--she stopped breathing for several minutes. By the time she was resuscitated, the lack of oxygen to her brain had caused extensive damage. A state investigation later discovered that a nurse in the recovery room had failed to turn on the alarms on Sharon Williams's monitor, then left her alone for an unknown period.

Since May, when Sharon was admitted to Vencor, Williams has come here every day. He has put his business on hold and instead sits with his wife for eight, sometimes ten hours. He talks with her. He prays with her. His world has shrunk from the boundless globe to the nine-mile stretch between his home in Plymouth and this hospital room. There is no way of knowing how long Sharon might remain comatose.

That uncertainty creates a cascade of problems. There is the cost of her long-term care, which insurance will cover for only the first year. There is a pending malpractice lawsuit against Fairview Health Services. There are Williams's dwindling savings. There are the children, Tenisha, 21, a junior at Augsburg College, and Jahron, 13, still living at home. And there is the loss Williams feels for the life he spent with Sharon, which carried them from their junior-high days in New Mexico all the way to Hong Kong, where Williams was a lawyer for Honeywell, and back to Minnesota.

"It's hard," Williams says, putting a starkly simple adjective to an unimaginable situation. "I come here every day and I will continue to do so until God brings her home to him, or allows her to come home with us. We just exist. We don't live. We can't plan our lives."

As the life he knew--the life he expected to have--is erased around him, the one thing that offers Williams any hope is his faith. It is also the one thing he must strive hardest to hold on to. "I talk to God," he says, full of questions. "When? Why? Why is it taking so long? Why should people suffer so badly who love God? Where were you, God, when we needed you? I don't understand anything anymore. How is this going to be good?"

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