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

Williams doesn't see this as a fight between doctors and lawyers. "This is not a legal issue. This is a moral issue. It's going to be led by the churches because they have the moral authority to raise this issue," he declares. "We want to make this issue akin to human rights, civil rights. These are basic rights, akin to breathing, that we all should have."

At a time when he must stretch to think beyond Sharon's current situation, Williams has latched on to the battle to change the rules of medical disclosure. If he can't control what happens to his wife and family, perhaps he can at least help change what happens to others in the future. "Each and every one of us is a potential victim. Each and every one of us can find ourselves in the hospital," he cautions. "The healthcare industry evolved to serve patients. Now it seems like it's serving a lot of other folks and the patients are at the end of the process."

Of the many shadows that chase James Williams--doting worry, smoldering anger, despairing sorrow--the one that seems most unshakable is a heartbreaking loneliness. Life has become a joyless chore for him, as he wanders through his 16-room house in Plymouth, the once-proud home Sharon picked out. He has changed nothing since she was last there. The bunnies and crosses Sharon put up around the home to celebrate Easter are still there. Her sparkling voice still greets callers on the answering machine. "The real glue of our family isn't with us the way we want her to be," he says simply.

Pacing the narrow hallway at the hospital where Sharon now lives, there is little Williams can do but wait, hope, and pray. "I don't have the ability to do anything that can change anything," he says. "I used to think I could make things happen. There was no problem I thought I couldn't solve." His legal and business training at Georgetown, Columbia, and Harvard, his years of experience working overseas for Honeywell, none of it prepared him for this, what he calls their darkest hour.

What happened April 11 devastated the Williams family. Every milestone brings a new torment. Mother's Day was hard, Williams recalls. Sharon's 43rd birthday was in August. A week later Jahron turned 13. The stretch from Thanksgiving to the New Year was almost unbearable. Tenisha turned 21 in December. Christmas came, with little to celebrate. (Williams sent his son to visit Sharon's brother and his family so the boy could have a happier Christmas. "I just didn't have the spirit," he explains. "I wanted to put him in an atmosphere, an environment where he could at least experience Christmas.") December 28 marked the Williamses' 22nd wedding anniversary. And with January came James Williams's 46th birthday.

It's morning, and Williams is sitting at his wife's bedside. He faces her, his head bent downward, and stretches both hands out a few inches above her motionless body. In one hand he holds a Bible. He asks God to help her.

When will this vigil end? Rev. Ford has urged him to put more energy into his own life. "He cannot spend eight hours a day at the hospital. He has been doing that since April. He's got to now do something different," Ford opines. "He's got to get back in the business he was in. There's got to be something that feeds your soul."

Sitting in Sharon's room, with the steady gurgling of the humidifier in the background, Williams has trouble reflecting on the notion of returning to his old life, his old self. "I was charging around the world, looking for money, making business interactions, playing the CEO," he says. Now he can't imagine going back to that. "Typically I'm a workaholic. I love to work. I love to do deals. But that part of me has been killed. I don't have the vigor for it. I don't see that part of my life coming back until my wife comes back. And even then I want to spend time rebuilding our relationship.

"I have to be here with my wife. I'm not going to let her be by herself. I'm not going to let her think she's alone. This is my work here, this is my mission," he declares. "All the things that were not important to me before are the most important things to me now. Maybe that's what's supposed to come out of this."

It's an excruciating position to be in, especially for a man whose life had always been about law and business, smooth handshakes and articulate arguments. For the corporate-lawyer Williams, clarity and logic could accomplish all goals. "His life was focused in on reasoning," says Ford. "Now we have to flip it to faith. The evidence of things unseen."

And so the family waits. Williams has turned his energies to studying brain injuries and talking to specialists around the country who might be able to help Sharon. He plans to visit six hospitals he thinks might offer her a chance of recovery.

Still, his hope lies in something beyond medicine. "No doctor can help us," he says. "Only the Great Doctor can help us. We're out in the area where only God operates."

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