David Williams: The HME industry's white knight

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How do you go about writing a eulogy for Superman, someone you thought just might never succumb to kryptonite or any other element earth could throw at him that would surely do in any mere mortal?

In an era where we assign praise to fighters, pro athletes, and celebrities who battle back from self-inflicted disease and addiction, we miss the courage and toughness of those like David T. Williams who simply fight the good fight every day, who have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them and come up smiling. I won't call David an inspiration because I know he wouldn't like that, but also because it would not come close to describing all that he was. Let's start with the label, optimist. 

The day after Dave died, I sat with his beloved wife Fran on their back porch and I told her he reminded me of the knight in the old Monty Python movie "The Holy Grail." In that movie, the knight gets both arms and legs cut off, but when the man who did this to him rides away, he yells to him: "Come back you chicken, it's only a flesh wound." 

MS, spinal cord injury, peripheral blindness, the move from manual chair to power wheelchair, oxygen support, CPAP and BIPAP, enteral feeding, too many hospital trips to count, and nursing home rehab. Through them all they were simple flesh wounds to Dave. They were nothing to worry about, nothing to get down about, just another thing to recover from. I remember walking into his house a few years ago after one of his many hospital stays and he was in his power chair, a nasal cannula in his nose and Fran was feeding him a liquid meal through a tube. "Dave you look like crap," I joked, "it must really suck not being able to eat real food." He replied with all sincerity, "I feel GREAT Mark, what are you up to? By the way is there an NCAA basketball tournament pool at work this year, I want to get my bet in."

First and foremost, David was an optimist and a positive thinker, but he was many other things, as well: husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, friend, colleague, athlete, activist, advocate, writer, councilman, sports fanatic, fund raiser, photographer, liberal democrat, healthcare consumer, and wheelchair user. I purposely put wheelchair user last to describe Dave because although it was certainly a big part of what made him what he was, he had a magician's way of making his chair and his physical disabilities disappear to those who knew him. He did not let it define who he was. He much preferred the other labels above, especially husband, father and grandfather. He would rather talk about sports and government, and if he did talk wheelchairs it was to advocate for others who were left behind by the system, not his own mobility. I am thankful to him for the impact on my own children, who grew up around David in our neighborhood. Because of his independence and love of life, they became blind to whether someone was in a chair or not when judging them. He was simply Mr. Williams to them and later just Dave. The chair was of no consequence to them.

I also know David would not want me to pass up this opportunity to praise home health care, an industry and a people he loved from the inside and out. Over the many years we were friends and neighbors, I helped Dave and Fran set up and adjust in their home manual and power wheelchairs, hand cycle, stair lift, bed, trapeze, shower chair, transfer bench, oxygen concentrator, CPAP, electronic doors, and wheelchair ramps. His house looked like one big HME ad. And he would be the first to tell you it made all the difference in the world in keeping him at home with Fran, active and in touch with the world around him. He used his power wheelchair like a car, driving several miles a day all over Amherst to attend council meetings, walk his dog, attend sporting events, visit friends, and go to the hardware store or just about anywhere he wanted to go. Nothing aggravated him more than the words "in the home."

If given advance notice, I know Dave would have told all of his friends in the industry how much he loved you as people and how much he loved you for what you do for others. Most of all, remember him for his toughness and his optimism. Superman is gone, but for those of us who remain, he would tell you his passing is only a flesh wound, keep fighting. HME

Mark Sullivan is Invacare's vice president of rehab.