Breaking the Silence

The Sharon Williams case ends with a measure of justice--but the real struggle is only beginning

Tilton says he cannot discuss the negotiations or the final October 4 settlement, except to say that the legal matters have been resolved and that "Fairview has acknowledged its responsibility in this matter and is working to improve patient safety." (The estimated cost of Sharon's care comes to nearly $100,000 a month.) But he is able to talk about the case itself. During the past year, the St. Paul attorney rounded up medical experts from around the nation to describe how the recovery-room nurses had neglected basic treatment protocols. He deposed dozens of witnesses--anyone who might have had the slightest information about what had happened. He went over Sharon Williams's available medical records. (Some, Tilton says, had been lost.)

Tilton says he was certain he'd eventually win a settlement for the Williams family, but when he was able to locate the mother who'd been in the recovery room, his confidence soared. "The room was getting smaller and smaller for them," the attorney asserts. "The hidden witness was just frosting on the cake."

Tilton says he learned of the witness's existence by chance, through the deposition of a recovery-room nurse. The lawyer immediately asked Fairview to release her identity and criticized the hospital for failing to disclose her presence earlier. Though Fairview officials argued that revealing the woman's identity infringed on the patient's right to confidentiality, Judge Allen Oleisky sided with Tilton.

Better times: James Williams has faith that Sharon, his wife of nearly 23 years, will fully regain consciousness
Better times: James Williams has faith that Sharon, his wife of nearly 23 years, will fully regain consciousness

Becky Moos, an attorney with Bassford, Lockhart, Truesdell & Briggs, P.A., who represented Fairview, denies that the hospital hid the witness, noting that she herself only learned of the woman's presence in the recovery room a few days before Tilton did. "No one had any reason to think this witness had any information that would be important to the case," says Moos. Besides, she adds, "We think she's mistaken."

While he'll never know whether the woman's testimony prompted Fairview to settle Sharon's case, James Williams now knows what happened to his wife. "We didn't find out what exactly happened until this witness became available," he says. "Yes, we finally know what happened and why, but it's not a result of [Fairview's] coming forward and telling the truth.

"I listened to this woman describe Sharon struggling to breathe," he continues, wiping tears from his eyes. "It was excruciating, because she was suffering. She suffered for a period of time. And they weren't there."

 

On this morning Sharon Williams seems relaxed but alert. It's still difficult, though, to tell exactly how much she hears and comprehends. Her caregivers say she is no longer in a "vegetative" state, but rather is "minimally conscious." Her nurse, one of seven James Williams has hired to provide 24-hour care, speaks softly to her as she fastens splints to her hands and checks the tube in her throat that helps warm her breath. "Turn toward my voice," she says, urging Sharon to move her head. The patient slowly turns her head in response.

"We're making a lot of progress," says James Williams. "She's more alert all the time." During one session, he recounts, Sharon was able to respond to 16 different commands--"turn your head," "move your fingers," "move your toes," etc. Her doctors and nurses are also trying to work on her ability to communicate, encouraging her to use one blink for yes, two for no.

Williams has been collecting treatment plans from specialists around the globe. He's exploring alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage. For now, he says, he's researching the possibilities as he builds Sharon's medical team; he won't rush to make any decisions about potential therapies, but he will start Sharon on an aggressive rehabilitation plan soon, to help strengthen her bones and muscles.

"It's a blessing from God that He would have people be interested in helping us," says Williams. As pleased as he is to have the courtroom struggle and his concern about paying for Sharon's care behind him, he is all too aware that the legal settlement marks the beginning of the journey, not the end. "I'm relieved that it's over, but it still leaves an empty feeling in my gut. It reconfirms that none of this should have happened," he laments, noting that Sharon's struggle has been draining for the couple's children, 21-year-old Tenisha, and Jahron, 14. "We are where we are. It's me and her and God. We're left to deal with this now, and money doesn't make up for it."

Williams maintains his hope, a hope he has clung to even when others have said Sharon will never fully regain consciousness. "We have a chance, and no one can take that away from us," he says. "Not only am I hopeful, but I expect her to come out of this. We have to believe that there is a reason why we're getting better. Nothing else makes sense to me. God begins where man ends."

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